British Columbia

Sean lived on the streets of Victoria. Now he's gone. Here's his story

Twenty years ago, Jes Sugrue made her dying mother a promise to look after her younger brother Sean. Sugrue kept that promise, helping Sean through his challenges with mental illness, addiction and homelessness until his death in hospital this April.

B.C. woman hopes by speaking up about her late brother's struggles, more can be done to help others like him

By the time he was 12, Sean Sugrue had already spent time sleeping on the streets after his mother fled the house with her kids to escape their violent father. (Submitted by Jes Sugrue)

Twenty years ago, Jes Sugrue made her dying mother a promise to look after her younger brother Sean.

Sugrue kept that promise, helping Sean through his challenges with mental illness, addiction and homelessness until his death in hospital this April, a few months shy of his 58th birthday. 

An official cause has not been determined, but Sean struggled with many physical and mental health problems. His death has Sugrue worrying for all the other people living on city streets or in and out of shelters who don't have someone like her to look out for them.

"So many are in the same situation as Sean," she said. "Now that I know what my brother was dealing with, I see them all differently. And it breaks my heart."

A childhood of trauma

Earlier this year, the B.C. government released the results of its first ever homeless count using new methodology it described as the "most accurate to date." It revealed an estimated 23,000 people experienced homelessness in 2019, the year the count was done, with more than two-thirds identified as having an addiction and 51 per cent reporting mental health issues.

Both of those issues applied to Sean Sugrue. He was the youngest child in a family that grew up with a violent father dealing with alcoholism, which put everyone through immeasurable stress. 

For 20 years, Jes Sugrue worked to look after her younger brother Sean, a talented musician who struggled with addiction and mental health issues. (Submitted by Jes Sugrue)

At one point, Sugrue's mother took her children on the run from their father, and by the time he turned 12, Sean had already spent time sleeping on the street. When his parents split up, Jes stayed with their mother while Sean went to Ottawa to live alone with their dad, where he spent four years fearing his violent outbursts.

Though their father eventually stopped drinking and would die sober, Sean's time with him set him on a difficult path.

A talented musician left to fend for himself

Sean eventually returned to Vancouver Island and channelled his energy into music. Jes remembers her brother as a talented songwriter and a gifted drummer, playing gigs around Victoria, but his musical dreams were derailed by schizophrenia, diabetes and hepatitis C. 

After being treated at the Victoria Mental Health Centre, Sean was placed in a supportive housing environment with 24-hour care because he needed help to take his medicine, shower regularly and look after wounds. 

But eventually, Jes says, he was sent out on his own. 

"They said, 'He's functioning well independently,' and so they topped up his housing amount for him to find his own housing in the community," she recalled.

Sean moved into a rental house, but without 24-hour care his troubles returned. He became addicted to street drugs, and found it difficult to look after the sores and ulcers that came with diabetes.

By 2018 he was living on the streets and later had one of his legs amputated. He believed someone had put implants in his brain and was controlling his movements. 

Gregor Craigie spoke with Jes Sugrue abut her brother, Sean, who died recently after struggling for years with schizophrenia, diabetes, addiction, overdoses, and homelessness

In and out of care

Jes Sugrue estimates her brother spent a third of his final five years in hospital.

As his medical representative she was in regular contact with doctors, nurses, and social workers, and she describes a frustrating cycle of Sean improving when he received direct care, only to see him start struggling again after being released.

She asked to have her brother kept in care under the province's Mental Health Act, but was unsuccessful.

As a child, Sean Sugrue feared for his safety growing up with a violent, alcoholic father. (Submitted by Jes Sugrue)

"They would say he's capable of making these decisions," she said. "He would seem fine."

Sugrue is quick to thank everyone who helped care for Sean over the years, and acknowledges he asked to be released. But she says one of the main reasons he didn't want to stay in care is it was difficult for him to smoke in a hospital setting, and that he wanted street drugs while suffering from severe delusions, which meant he couldn't look after himself.

Mayors of several B.C. cities have called on the province to make it easier to force vulnerable people into care, while several legal and advocacy groups say forced institutionalization is inhumane and ineffective. The province has said it is considering the best way to support those in need of care.

Sugrue says the current system failed her brother and she plans to keep speaking out about the need for change because, otherwise, "we're allowing the same thing to happen to somebody else."

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story stated that Jes Sugrue applied to have her brother held under the Mental Health Act. While Sugrue advocated for changes that would allow her brother to be held and was supportive of the idea, she did not formally apply to invoke the act. The story also previously stated that Sean Sugrue moved into an apartment; it has been updated to clarify he moved into a house.
    May 16, 2022 9:44 AM PT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gregor Craigie

@GregorCraigie

Gregor Craigie is the host of On The Island on CBC Radio One in Victoria. Past journalistic lives include reading the news at the BBC World Service, political reporting on TV, and freelancing in Asia.

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