Nfld. & Labrador

Happy Valley-Goose Bay woman pleads for sleeping bags after friend dies on frozen trail

Dawn Crocker wants to help people who find themselves with nowhere to go, after Susanna Rich was found dead outside.

Dawn Crocker collecting items in memory of Susanna Rich to keep people warm when they have no place to go

Bartender Dawn Crocker stuffs sleeping bags, blankets and other donated items into her truck after pleading on social media for help for people who have no place to go. (John Gaudi/CBC )

A Labrador woman wants to help people who find themselves with nowhere to go after her friend was found dead on a trail in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in freezing temperatures.

The last time Dawn Crocker saw Susanna Rich, 46, was Feb. 8 at the Sandbar Lounge, where Crocker works as a bartender. Two days later, a body was found on a trail in the town, and Crocker was heartbroken to learn it was her friend.

"It's this day and age, 2020, and people are freezing on trails in our little town, and there is absolutely no need. We need to come together as a community and help," Crocker told CBC's Labrador Morning.  

"Nobody needs to be dying on the trails because they have no place to go at night," she said.

The RCMP say they're working with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the cause of death is yet to be determined.

The last time Crocker saw Rich, she gave her coffee and a bite to eat, and then asked her friend if she had a place to go. 

"I asked her twice, in fact. 'Are you sure? You're not telling me lies, Susanna? You have a place to go, right?" she said. Crocker said Rich assured her she did.  

"Had I known she didn't have a place to go, she would have gladly come to my apartment with me," said Crocker.

Crocker says she knew Rich for five years, and during that time, often gave her food, rides and kept her out of the cold on many nights. 

It's hard to go to sleep at night knowing that someone else may end up freezing to death.- Sherry Bessey

"She was really, really, really loved by everybody who met her," Crocker said.

"This was her fate, to die in our trail in the middle of town, and it breaks my heart. Nobody needs to do that anymore." 

Temperatures in Happy Valley-Goose Bay reached a low of  –24 C the day before Rich was found. 

A 'mind-blowing' response

In the wake of her friend's death, Crocker has pleaded on social media for sleeping bags to help people sleeping outdoors to stay a little warmer. 

Crocker's friend Sherry Bessey shared her post right away, and said the response from the community, as well as from people reaching out from across Canada, has been overwhelming.

It hasn't only been sleeping bags; blankets, jackets, mittens, scarves and hats are among the donations that Bessey hopes will prevent someone from dying in the cold.

Crocker remembers Susanna Rich, 46, of Natuashish as a 'beautiful soul' who touched the hearts of those who knew her. (Submitted )

"It breaks my heart," she said. "It really, really breaks my heart because I have such a comfortable, warm home to go home to, and it's hard to go to sleep at night knowing that someone else may end up freezing to death and it should never happen." 

Crocker is pleased the Housing Hub emergency shelter in Happy Valley-Goose Bay has accepted her donations, and she's also approaching the Labrador Friendship Centre, Salvation Army and the Nunatsiavut government in hopes they can help distribute items, too.    

"If anybody goes to the shelter, and they have to turn them away because of an intoxication issue, 'Here, do you need a sleeping bag? Here's a sleeping bag to go with, a warm coat, do you need a hat, pair of mitts?" she said. 

Crocker said Rich was a "beautiful soul" who always had a smile no matter how down she was. Right from the start, she said, she knew Rich was a "special lady" who left her mark on her and others in the community. 

About 30 people attended a candlelight vigil for Rich organized by the the Mokami Status of Women Council in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and many stayed for a sharing circle in the women's centre afterwards. 

Sherry Bessey says the community response has been overwhelming, with dozens of sleeping bags, blankets, hats, mitts and jackets being donated. (John Gaudi/CBC )

Open doors

Advocates for the homeless say there are many reasons why someone can face housing instability and barriers to finding a place to stay.  

For the past few years, the Happy Valley-Goose Bay Housing and Homelessness Coalition has been lobbying the province to fund an outreach co-ordinator to meet people on the trails.

"We'd like to see someone hired who can go out there, talk with the people, refer them to mental health, refer them to AES [Advanced Education and Skills], refer them to wherever they need to go to get some assistance," said Jackie Compton-Hobbs, a town councillor and member of the coalition.   

So far, requests have gone unanswered.

The emergency shelter is open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Compton-Hobbs says it's supposed to house eight people but it's maxed out at 14 every night.

The coalition has also asked for funding to keep the shelter doors open during the day, but it hasn't been approved. 

so far requests to the province to fund an outreach co-ordinator at the emergency shelter have gone unanswered. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Meantime, Crocker urges anyone who comes across a person in distress to call 911 and get help. 

Unless things change, she said, freezing to death will be a sad reality. 

In November, Tama Bennett, 23, of Nain was found dead in a tent in the woods in Happy Valley-Goose Bay; there was public criticism over how her death was investigated by police.

"Open your doors, that's all I have to say. Please, please, please, if you hear me, open your doors and let these people in tonight," Crocker says. 

She and others plan to walk the trails themselves to hand out warm clothing. 

"If I can keep 10 people warm tonight, and 10 people warm tomorrow night, and 10 people warm for the rest of the winter — because I'm doing this for Susanna. I don't want anything else to happen to anyone in our community," Crocker said.

A candlelight vigil was held for Rich at the women's centre in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, followed by a sharing circle afterwards. (Submitted by Rose Rich)

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John Gaudi

CBC reporter

John Gaudi reports from Happy Valley-Goose Bay for CBC's Labrador Morning.