Inquest begins into 'agonizing death' of homeless man in shack fire

Anti-poverty advocates are hoping a coroner's inquest beginning Monday into the fiery death of a homeless man in 2015 will prevent tragedies like it from happening again.

Grant Faulkner died in frigid temperatures when his makeshift shelter caught fire in January 2015

Grant Faulkner died in January 2015 when the wooden shed he was living in caught fire. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

Anti-poverty advocates are hoping a coroner's inquest beginning Monday into the fiery death of a homeless man in 2015 will prevent tragedies like it from happening again.

Grant Faulkner was living in a wooden shack behind a cement plant in Scarborough when temperatures dropped to about -20 C in January 2015. He was reportedly using a propane heater to keep warm. Once firefighters put out the flames, they discovered his body.

His death shocked the city and outreach workers pushed to for an inquest, which was granted at the end of 2016.

Greg Cook, an outreach worker with the Christian charitable organization Sanctuary, was one of the people who helped find witnesses to testify at the inquest.

Inquest to examine city services  

"Could there have been better outreach services for people like Grant, who are camping in city parks or industrial land? Those are some of the things we hope the inquest will look at," said Cook.

Sanctuary, along with six other community organizations such as Health Providers Against Poverty, created a coalition and has a form standing at the inquest that allows the group to ask follow-up questions and suggest specific recommendations. The coalition is represented by lawyer Tracy Heffernan.

"What the coalition is hoping to see out of the inquest are recommendations that would prevent anyone from Toronto being forced to live in a plywood shack and prevent anyone from dying such an agonizing death," said Heffernan.

The week-long inquest will be presided over by Dr. David Eden and the jury will hear from 15 witnesses, after which a set of recommendations is expected to be released.

The burned wooden shack Grant Faulkner, 49, called home. A portion of this image has been blurred intentionally. (Tony Smyth/CBC)

Some changes made since Faulkner's death

The city has already started keeping track of how many homeless people die in Toronto each year. The first numbers came out this year for 2017, and many people were surprised that the city reached 100 deaths.

"In a city as wealthy as ours, no one should die on the street," said Coun. Joe Cressy, one of the members of city council responsible for moving the motion forward.

"The purpose of counting deaths is to prevent future deaths. I'm hopeful that the inquest helps us identify gaps that we can fill."

Shelters and access to beds is one of the subjects Cook hopes the inquest will focus on. Last week, the city announced that it will spend $10 million on four giant tents that will house the homeless in the winter months when most shelters are at capacity.

"I feel quite conflicted about that," said Cook.

"The fact that people will have a warm space to sleep during the winter is great. At the same time, it's indicative of how dire the situation is because we're erecting tents to keep people warm."