A homeless man begged for help, but shelter couldn't be found. 24 hours later he was on life support
Woman says her uncle has been 'kicked around by a system that doesn’t want him'
On a cloudy and cold November afternoon, Richard Thomas was walking along Baker Street in downtown Nelson, B.C., when a man stumbled toward him, grabbed his arm, and begged for help.
Thomas and his wife Karen felt compelled to do whatever they could to get a roof over his head.
For the next hour they tried in vain to find indoor shelter for the man, a 60-year-old Kootenays resident who is homeless and mentally ill, eventually leaving him at a support group meeting.
But over the next 24 hours, the man would end up in hospital twice, the second time on life support with a potentially fatal blood infection.
His plight shows how B.C.'s social safety net is failing people with complex needs, the man's family says.
"He's a human being that is being kicked around by a system that doesn't want him," said his niece Nicole, in tears.
She said her uncle has struggled with mental illness for most of his life, and intermittently with alcohol, and fell into homelessness about 10 years ago following a divorce.
CBC News has agreed not to name the man or give Nicole's last name to protect his privacy.
'I felt ashamed our systems couldn't help him'
After encountering the man, the Thomases began their attempt to help him by visiting a local hotel, hoping to buy the man a room for the night.
But the hotel required identification, which the man didn't have, and wouldn't let him stay, fearing he would be disruptive to other guests.
Next, the couple called the local shelter, Stepping Stones, who said the man had been banned from the site for disruptive behaviour.
They then called their pastor, who suggested contacting Nelson police. The police told Thomas they were familiar with the man, but there was nothing they could do.
The man eventually asked the couple to take him to a local meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, where they left him at about 6:30 p.m.
"I felt ashamed that I couldn't help him," said Thomas, 56, a local accountant. "And the more I thought about it, the more I felt ashamed that our systems couldn't help him."
A man at the meeting who knew the man's niece called her and put her uncle on the phone.
"He was barely able to talk," said Nicole, who lives about five hours' drive away in the Okanagan Valley. She told her friend at the meeting to call an ambulance. When it arrived, he called Nicole back and put the call on speakerphone.
"I could hear the ambulance attendant saying to my uncle that the hospital is not housing," she said, and that "calling the ambulance for my uncle was a waste of community resources."
Nonetheless, the man was admitted to the Kootenay Lake Hospital in Nelson. A few hours later, Nicole got a call from a nurse.
"That nurse told me that he had seen a doctor, that he was assessed and he would now be discharged," she said. "I told that nurse that if they discharged him that night, he would die."
Despite those concerns, he was discharged around midnight with nowhere to go. The temperature had dropped to –6 C.
The Kootenay Lake Hospital would not comment on the specific case.
In a statement, Interior Health said following up with discharged patients "may not be possible if an individual does not accept those services or does not accept the initial medical advice from our hospital teams."
Found unconscious in the cold
At noon the next day, Nov. 30 — about 12 hours after being discharged from Kootenay Lake Hospital — the man's family was contacted by staff at another hospital in a nearby community, who said he had been found unconscious outside.
CBC is not naming the hospital to protect the man's identity.
Family members told CBC their relative had been diagnosed with sepsis, a potentially fatal blood infection, which originated in his knee.
He was placed on life support, which included a medically induced coma and a ventilator. He underwent multiple surgeries and was conscious but unco-operative, according to his family, who say his leg may need to be amputated.
Nicole says her uncle shouldn't have had to go through this.
"On this one night," she said, "there was an ambulance, police, nurses, doctors, and nothing good happened for my uncle," she said.
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Attempts to intervene
Relatives of the man told CBC they have tried to intervene repeatedly in the past, offering him help, money and housing, but three of them said his addiction and mental illness have progressed beyond what they can handle.
Last year, they said, he was admitted under the B.C. Mental Health Act to Hillside Centre in Kamloops, which provides residential care for people with severe mental illness. Once he was stabilized, he was discharged — and immediately stopped taking his medication.
"Then his mom got sick with COVID and passed away," said Nicole, "and my uncle went further into his mental illness."
His family wants him placed back in psychiatric care, one of his relatives said.
New B.C. Premier David Eby has vowed to make that option more viable for people with severe mental illness.
"People will see more interventions in terms of mental health and addiction treatment on an involuntary basis," Eby told CBC before he was sworn in.
"That kind of gap, where physicians feel like they're sending someone out, potentially to die in the street … obviously the status quo isn't working."
Nelson has the highest rate of homelessness in the southern Interior, with just over eight unsheltered residents per 1,000 people, according to a recent count by the Nelson Committee on Homelessness.
Downtown shelters have been controversial in neighbouring communities like Trail, where city council recently voted to extend an agreement on shelter capacity — but only until B.C. Housing can find a new location away from the commercial centre of town.