Homeless woman found in clothing bin died for 'lots of immediate reasons,' friend says

The death of a woman inside the clothing donation bin where she spent her final moments was not simply a senseless tragedy, according to many who gathered at a vigil held in her memory, but also a byproduct of the city's homeless problem.

Victim wasn't always homeless but had a 'rough time of it last year,' Meg Inwood says

Two women hold a poster with the attributes they say Crystal taught them at a vigil in her honour. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

The death of a homeless woman inside the clothing donation bin where she spent her final moments was not simply a senseless tragedy, according to many who gathered at a vigil held in her memory.

"Right now, I'm seeing a narrative where this is being crafted as a death that happened for no reason," the woman's longtime friend Meg Inwood told CBC News. "There were lots of immediate reasons why it happened."

The woman, identified only by her first name, Crystal, was one of Inwood's oldest friends — the two had known each other since Inwood was 16.

Crystal, in her 30s, was discovered Tuesday morning lifeless inside a bin in Toronto's Bloor Street and Dovercourt Road. Paramedics performed CPR but she was pronounced dead at the scene.

Shelter became a 'lifeline'

But Crystal wasn't always homeless, Inwood points out.

"She had a really, really rough time of it the last year and a half," Inwood said. Before that, she said, Crystal had an apartment of her own — that is, until an incident where Inwood says her friend was assaulted. Crystal "retaliated," Inwood says, finding herself banned from the apartment building while her case was making its way through the courts.
More than 100 people turned out at the spot where a Toronto woman struggling with homelessness died in a clothing donation bin for a vigil in her memory. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

By the time the charges against Crystal were dropped, says Inwood, she'd lost her apartment and finding housing felt impossible.

After that happened, Inwood says, the charity-run women's shelter Sistering, located in the west end, became Crystal's "lifeline." 

The shelter's executive director Patricia O'Connell confirmed to CBC News that Crystal had stayed there in the past.

'She was just a lovely human being," O'Connell said Tuesday. "We're all just devastated."

During her time on the streets, Crystal turned to clothing donation bins for warm clothes many times, according to Inwood. But Crystal found herself in trouble again after an incident at the shelter that saw her banned for about six months, Inwood said.

'We're calling this a disaster'

As she bounced from shelter to shelter, clothing donation bins remained a source of warm, dry clothes. But Inwood believes the bin in the area had recently been replaced, with Crystal not realizing she would become trapped once inside.

The company that manufactures the bins, Rangeview Fabricating, told CBC News on Wednesday that it was halting production of the model and urging its charity partners to remove the anti-theft pinch-point bars that lock someone inside. 

In the hours after Crystal's death, Toronto Mayor John Tory announced he was requesting a review of Toronto's donation bin system, including their location, design and whether they are, in fact, the best way to collect clothing.

But for street nurse Cathy Crowe, who was one of more than 100 people who turned out for the vigil in the place where Crystal died, there's a much bigger issue contributing to deaths like this one.

Crowe says shelters across the city are over capacity, with more than 1,000 people "squeezed into" respite and out-of-the-cold centres that lack the necessities that shelters provide. 

"There are over 100 women now sleeping on floors and chairs at overnight drop-ins," Crowe said.

"We're calling this a disaster," said Crowe, who said she'd like to see the city open federal buildings, including the armouries, as well as any empty city and provincial buildings to help with the problem — an issue that was underscored by an extreme cold warning in Toronto Thursday as temperatures plunged into the minus double digits. 

Crowe says she and other advocates will be calling on the mayor to declare a state of emergency when it comes to homelessness in the city. 

'Begs for national outrage'

"The situation here just begs for national outrage," she said. 

She's not alone. Isabella Gamk, who was also in attendance Thursday, knows all too well the reality of living on the streets.
A woman was pronounced dead at the scene after being found in a clothing donation box in the west end early Tuesday morning. (Tony Smyth/CBC)

"It's cold out there," said Gamk, recalling being homeless herself. Gamk has been off the streets 10 years now and has since published a book of poetry, but says her heart still breaks every time she sees someone without shelter.

"This is a rich country," she said. 

For Inwood, it's knowing the realities that Crystal faced that make her death so much more needless and tragic.

"It's really easy — when you've had a life like she's had — to stop being able to care, to stop being able to find any real joy in life. Lord knows she wasn't a saint, none of us are," said Inwood.

"But she had so much love in her."