British Columbia

Vancouver homeless man dies on December night blocks from new shelter

Michael Illing died in an East Vancouver alley on a cold December night less than two blocks from a homeless shelter.

'He was really nice, thoughtful, just a really nice person you know,' says friend who discovered him

A homeless man sleeps in a doorway in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside on Monday. A man with no fixed address died Dec. 7 in East Vancouver, just two blocks from a homeless shelter. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Mike Illing died in an East Vancouver alley on a cold December night less than two blocks from a new homeless shelter.

Nubia Ayala, who had known Illing for about three years, discovered her friend lying under a sleeping bag behind the Commercial Drive food store where she works.​

Ayala rushed to Illing's side, but he didn't respond. Paramedics who arrived within minutes worked on Illing for about an hour trying to revive him, but he died.

His death shook her and other store employees who were friends with him.

"He was really nice, thoughtful, just a really nice person you know?" said Ayala. More than two weeks after his death, she still finds it hard to believe Illing is gone.

She had spoken to him a couple of hours before his death Dec. 7 and he seemed fine.

"He was just talking to me like I'm talk to you," Ayala said. "I said 'Hey Mike, how is it going?' and he said, 'I'm OK.' "

Three hours later, he was dead.

Coroner investigating 

Illing's death prompted soul searching among homeless advocates who have pressed for more shelters during a prolonged cold snap in Vancouver.

According to the B.C. Coroners Service, a man in his 50s with no fixed address died in an alley in the 1900 block of Commercial Drive on Dec. 7. No cause of death has yet been established, said spokeswoman Barbara McLintock, but it's under investigation.

The temperature hovered around 1 C that day.

One media outlet has reported that a homeless man who was turned away from a packed shelter earlier this month died later in the evening. 

Sean Spear, associate director of RainCity Housing, which operates the new shelter on First Avenue, would not confirm that Illing sought shelter there the night he died.

But Spear did say the First Avenue shelter was filled to capacity that night; its 40 beds occupied

When that happens, those seeking shelter are offered a mat or a couch to sleep on in an overflow area — as well as food.

Although he couldn't confirm if Illing sought a bed at the First Avenue shelter, Spear said the homeless man's death was a tragedy which underscores the need for more emergency shelter and permanent housing.

Since the shelter opened in late November, the building has been filled to capacity nearly every night.

Staff, who are working hard to ensure people get warm accommodations, are also grappling with overdoses, which are commonplace, Spear said.

Slept behind the store

"We're doing all we can right now," he said. "But there are just so many things going on right now." 

Ayala said she didn't know if Illing sought shelter at the First Avenue shelter the night he died. During the summer, he slept behind the food store. 

She said Illing became homeless last April. Previously, he lived on East Hastings Street. She didn't know why he lost his housing.

"Mike was really private about so many things."

Ayala said Illing had a sister and brother, an ex-wife and grown son. A lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society said efforts are still underway to contact Illings' family.

He sold calendars and newspapers on the street for a homeless organization.

In a YouTube video, Illing is seen performing a rap song for Megaphone magazine, which he sold on the streets.

She thought he suffered from a disability but didn't know its exact nature.

"He was in the army and got hurt back in the day."

Although he "liked to drink," he did not do drugs, she said. A couple of weeks before he died, Illing fell and needed stitches on his chin.

Ayala wondered if the fall had an impact on his death.

The day he died, Ayala said Illing left the alley after their afternoon conversation. Her boss came to the store at about 6 p.m. He told her that he had seen Mike '"still sleeping outside." Ayala went to check on him.

By then, he was unconscious beneath a sleeping bag.