New Brunswick

Questions mount over how homeless Fredericton woman died while living in tent

Politicians and advocates are raising questions about what led to the death of a homeless woman living in a tent on Fredericton's north side.

N.B. Coroner Services investigating death of woman at tent camp on Fredericton's north side

Political and non-profit leaders are asking how a woman ended up dying in a tent in Fredericton last November. A tent set up outside Wilmot Church in Fredericton is pictured in this file photo. (Joanne Barlow/Facebook)

Politicians and a Fredericton shelter director want answers about what gaps in support may have led to the death of a homeless woman who was living in a tent.

"This is a horrifying, horrifying situation and it can't happen again," said Green Party Leader and Fredericton South MLA David Coon.

Coroner Services says it is investigating after the woman was found dead at a tent camp on Fredericton's north side in November, according to spokesperson Geoffrey Downey.

Downey did not comment on the cause of death and said Coroner Services is waiting for final police and autopsy reports before deciding whether to hold a coroner's inquest.

Coon said with the information that's already known, he thinks a coroner's inquest should be called immediately to prevent something similar happening in the future.

Green Party Leader and Fredericton South MLA David Coon said he wants to see a coroner's inquest called immediately into the death of a homeless woman who was living in a tent on the city's north side. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

"New Brunswickers need to know the details of what happened. How did this come about? And what are the gaps in the system that brought this about?" Coon said.

"It's only when the public is well tuned in to a tragedy like this, understand what's happened, that there is sufficient public pressure to ensure that the coroner's recommendations get fully acted upon and acted upon with some sense of urgency."

Downey, in an email, said a crucial part of the decision-making process for holding a coroner's inquest, is first having as many facts and as much evidence as possible.

CBC News first learned about the woman's death and the circumstances surrounding it from Dr. Sara Davidson, medical director of the Riverstone Recovery Centre, which serves as a downtown addictions treatment centre.

Davidson said prior to her death, the woman needed a life-saving operation, but was denied it by another doctor because of her status as a homeless person.

Davidson said the reason given was that the woman would not have the appropriate home setting to recover post-operation.

Davidson said she knew the woman personally through her role at Riverstone Recovery Centre, but declined to specify her relationship with the woman or how she obtained her health information.

An interview request from CBC News was declined by Horizon Health Network. Instead, a statement from Margaret Melanson, the vice-president of quality and patient-centred care, was provided. 

"While we are unable to comment on specific cases, surgeries are prioritized based on several factors, including urgency, a patient's health condition and more. A patient's housing situation does not factor into this process in any way, as safe care and discharge plans are developed for each patient," said Melanson. 

Coon said details shared by Davidson add even more reason for the incident to be investigated.

"So every step along the way, there were huge gaps and shortcomings and failures — really system failures — every step along the way," he said.

Robert Gauvin, Shediac Bay-Dieppe MLA and social development critic for the Liberals, said the province needs to get to the bottom of what happened, and particularly how she ended up going without surgery.

"It's not like New Brunswick... We cannot stand for that. We have to do something," Gauvin said.

In an emailed statement Thursday, Social Development Minister Bruce Fitch expressed condolences to the woman's family and friends, and said his department would work to continue assisting shelters and responding to the homeless populations needs.

A spokesperson for his department referred CBC News to that same statement when asked for further comment on an investigation into the incident.

Shelter beds were available, says director

Warren Maddox, executive director of the Fredericton Homeless Shelters Inc., said he's disturbed by the woman's death, and wants to know how she was never flagged to agencies like his own for support.

He said last November, the same month she died, there were COVID-19 outbreaks in the shelters which limited intake for a few weeks.

However, for the weeks and months before, there were beds available, including at his organization's Grace House for women.

Fredericton Homeless Shelters Inc. executive director Warren Maddox says he's trying to figure out how the woman was never referred to his shelters, especially considering there was room in them at the time. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

"So there is supports out there and and they're available. It's just we're not sure why she wasn't connected to where she should have been," Maddox said.

"So that sort of is something that we're looking at in terms of trying to figure out who she was and and why she wasn't engaged or wasn't connected with either ourselves or outreach [workers] or John Howard [Society] or a number of people that are out there."

Maddox said he understands if a doctor didn't think it was appropriate to operate on her, given the risks of complications from her recovering while in a tent.

However, he said staff at the hospital should have taken the initiative to arrange accommodations through a shelter in order to ensure she had the surgery done.

"The problem is that the hospital could have very easily, you know, advocated on her behalf as well. So, you know, that's another sort of access point that could have been developed from the hospital."