British Columbia·In Depth

Vancouver's homeless face cruel dilemma — do you risk lighting a fire to survive the cold?

Homeless people often face a cruel dilemma: try to brave it on the street without fire, or take the risk, and light a candle.

The decision can end in tragedy — but sometimes there's no alternative

According to Judy Graves, a retired advocate for the homeless, there are not enough beds to accommodate everyone trying to get in out of the cold. (CBC)

By late autumn in B.C.'s Lower Mainland, it's often rained so heavily that, if you're living on the street, you're soaked to the skin. Your socks, shoes and sleeping bag are drenched, and it's virtually impossible to get dry. 

On a brutally cold, windy night in January 2008, a man named Darrell Mickasko and his girlfriend found themselves in that situation and made a fateful choice: they lit a candle.

Their tarp caught fire and Darrell burned to death.

Nearly a year later, on Dec. 19, 2008, on a night that felt like  —13 C, a homeless woman named Tracy tucked herself into her shopping cart on Davie street. In the freezing cold, she lit a candle, and was incinerated inside the only home she had.

A homeless shelter that accommodated shopping carts opened days later. For years after Tracy's death, scorch marks reminded Vancouver of the spot where she died.

Judy Graves, a retired advocate for the homeless, said Tracy's death should not be forgotten.

Being burned alive, she said, is "probably the most terrible death" a person can endure. When a person in a tent catches fire, the synthetic material "shrink wraps" the person, melting onto their skin, Graves said.

A homeless shelter that accommodated shopping carts opened days after Tracy's death in 2008. (CBC)

'Like musical chairs'

She said Vancouver's emergency shelter system has improved since the deaths of Mickasko and Tracy — and now includes extreme weather shelters — but there are not enough beds to accommodate everyone trying to get in out of the cold.

"It's like musical chairs. If we bring somebody in, someone else stays out," she said.

People who are turned away face a cruel dilemma: try to brave it on the street without fire, or take the risk, and light a candle. 

"She was dozing on and off, I told her to blow out the candles," said Tom Spooner, the friend of a homeless woman in Chilliwack who was airlifted to hospital with serious burns. (CBC)

The number of homeless in Metro Vancouver has risen by 30 per cent since 2014, and with that increase has come an increase in tent cities. Some advocates argue the camps allow the homeless to pool their resources to make it through the winter.

Municipalities view these spots as fire hazard, and indeed last winter, 30 people were displaced after a fire ripped through a camp in Chilliwack.

For cities, the priority is to keep people alive — but those living in the camps say crackdowns on heating materials have been heavy handed, arguing they haven't been provided with alternatives to keep warm. ​

"Every city hall and every municipality seems to treat the fire risk issue with the utmost of importance, and as an excuse to scatter homeless people," said Ivan Drury with the Coalition Against Displacement. 

In the last month, there were two fires involving homeless people — including one in Chilliwack in which a woman was airlifted to hospital with serious burns. Both involved people living in isolation.

'Freezing in a rainstorm'

The Anita Place tent city in Maple Ridge has a working relationship with the local fire department, which conducts daily inspections with campers. Safety measures include keeping tents a metre apart, not letting tarps overlap over multiple tents, and removing piles of combustible materials.

Glenda Herrling was killed in December 2016 when heavy snow caused the roof of her shelter to collapse. (Simon Charland/CBC)

But the  Anita Place arrangement is rare. Earlier this month, residents of Sugar Mountain tent city in Vancouver were angered after the fire department entered unannounced and confiscated stoves and heating devices.

"You just can't tell somebody freezing in a rainstorm that they can't use heating," said Drury. "We don't know how many people have died because of exposure to cold and wet."

Last year, a woman in a tent city in Chilliwack died after her tent collapsed on top of her due to a build up of snow.

Dwayne, 48, has been on the streets for the past four years and now lives in Anita Place. He said trying to keep warm and dry in the winter is impossible.

 "The fire department won't give us any kind of source of information on what kind of heat we can use, they're always telling us what they're going to take away."

Firefighters removed stoves and heaters from Vancouver's 'Sugar Mountain' tent city on Nov. 9. (Denis Dossmann/CBC News)

Need for affordable housing

Drury said that while he considers tent cities to be a safer option for homeless people, "it's not like it's great to live outside in the winter no matter how great the camp itself is."

Graves said the weather response shelters should be thought of as a "disaster response," rather than housing.

Meanwhile, people on all sides of the debate say there is only one viable solution: to create affordable housing.

Graves said that though the scorch marks from where Tracy burned are long faded, she has been forever marked by the people who lost their lives trying to survive the winter on the streets.

"I can't walk down Davie Street without seeing and remembering what happened to Tracy."

About the Author

Michelle Ghoussoub

@MichelleGhsoub

Michelle Ghoussoub is a journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. She has previously reported in Lebanon and Chile. Reach her at michelle.ghoussoub@cbc.ca or on Twitter @MichelleGhsoub.