Sunday, December 21, 2008


VANCOUVER - A 47-year-old homeless woman who died Friday while trying to stay warm in her makeshift shelter on Davie Street at Hornby Street sobbed when outreach workers wouldn’t give her a candle.

Ellen Silvergieter, director of the outreach and advocacy services at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, said workers had tried several times to get the woman to go to a shelter.

But the woman, who was known as Tracey, had refused to leave the bed she had made under her overturned shopping cart lined with cardboard, bedsheets and blankets.

The workers gave her a thick quilt, coat and some hot chocolate but wouldn’t give her a candle because it wasn’t safe, Silvergieter said.

“She didn’t want to leave her possessions behind to go to a shelter,” Silvergieter said. “To somebody on the street that’s their whole world, that’s all they have.”

Judy Graves, housing advocate for the City of Vancouver, said she knew the woman as Tracey and described her as a familiar face to anyone who frequented the area.

“She was a very sweet woman,” Graves said in an interview. “She was the person who would hold the door open for you as a means of panhandling. Anybody in that area will know her. People on Davie Street are really going to miss her. They are going to be very, very sad.”

Police said a passenger in a taxi travelling through Davie and Hornby shortly after 4:30 a.m. called 911 after spotting a figure engulfed in flames.

Police and firefighters responded but were unable to save the woman.

Early indications are the woman may have been trying to keep warm as temperatures dipped to about minus 10 degrees Celsius, police said.

Vancouver Police Const. Jana McGuinness said Thursday the woman was originally from Abbotsford.

She said police made contact with her at least three times overnight.

On the last time around 12:30 a.m., she said an officer gave the woman a lighter to light her candles.

The woman’s death came just days before a new shelter at 1435 Granville street that allows shopping carts and another on Howe Street were opened.

Graves said construction crews were “working like demons” to complete the 30-bed shelter, which is scheduled to open on Saturday night.

McGuinness said she is "very confident" that police make contact with all those sleeping on the streets on a given night, and make them aware of their options.

Mayor Gregor Robertson said he was "horrified" to hear of the incident.

"Its a great tragedy for the city, its a great tragedy for all of us here in the community who have been working hard to right a terrible wrong in our city and address the problem of homelessness," he said.

He said it was particularly tragic since the woman died just days before a new shelter on Granville street and another on Howe Street were opened.

Robertson said he will be talking with police chief Jim Chu about the possibilty of strenthening police powers to compell people to go into shelters.

Silvergieter said the woman would likely have to gone to a shelter if there was one nearby, pointing out many homeless in the West End don’t want to go to the Downtown Eastside.

She said the woman, who she described as pleasant, had had her foot run over by a car a day earlier but told the driver she as okay.

She said she was in tears when the outreach workers wouldn’t give her a candle to keep warm.

“She stayed out on the main street. So many hide away in the alleys but I think she was more comfortable, and probably felt safer if she was right there on the street,” Silvergieter said.

“She just wanted to be able to live peacefully.” Graves said the woman lit candles under a tarp, perhaps inside a shopping cart, to keep warm and that the fire started when she fell asleep.

“Using candles in your house when you’re sleepy is a real bad idea,” she said. “If your house is as small as a shopping cart and a tarp, it’s deadly.”

Graves said the woman had been on the street “quite a while” and preferred to sleep in the open - rather than in alcoves, where she was more vulnerable - because she could not cope with attending a shelter.

“She couldn’t bear it,” she said. “It’s not a choice at that point. The choice maker is broken.” Graves confirmed the woman had a shopping cart and that shopping carts as well as dogs are not typically allowed in homeless shelters in the city.

That will change with the opening of new shelters under Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson’s 90-day homeless strategy.

“A person should not have to give up all their possessions or their best friend to come inside for the night.”

About 170 homeless people slept at the First United Church Thursday night, Graves added.

But she said mental illnesses may prohibit a homeless person from taking advantage of a homeless shelter.

“If mental illness is the barrier, that’s not something we can overcome with a physical structure. No matter what we do, there’ll be a few people who stay out.

It’s important not to listen so much to what they say - 'I choose to do this' - but to listen behind their words and watch their behaviours and understand why they choose to live outside because nobody in their right mind chooses to live outside in weather like this.

“Often the tougher the person looks, the more fragile they are inside. It’s really easy to miss that.” Early indications are the woman may have been trying to keep warm as temperatures dipped to about minus 10 degrees Celsius, police said.

The investigation is continuing.

A large black soot mark on a piece of concrete wall outside the Lickerish restaurant at 903 Davie marked the spot of the fire.

Burnt embers still littered the dirty snow and ice on the pavement.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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Police work to remove the remains of a homeless woman who burned to death while trying to stay warm in her shopping cart overnight. It is believed the fire broke out at approximately 4:30 a.m. killing the 47-yr-old woman.

Photograph by: Jenelle Schneider/Vancouver Sun

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December 21, 2008 - 6:09 PMFlag this as Inappropriate

Boo to JP in particular. Mental illness such as schizophrenia and bi-polar are not caused by poor parenting. Get educated about mental illness before you chalk it up to parenting. I blame her death on deinstitutionalization, one of the worst decisions our governments have made. Let's open up safe places for some of our fellow human beings who are mentally ill. Is it better for them to be loose on the streets and at risk of rape, physical assault and worse as they have no where safe to go? Yes, there were problems with the institutions but they could be monitored better and would therefore be a better place than the streets.


December 21, 2008 - 4:29 PMFlag this as Inappropriate

The sad truth of this is that right across CANADA homeless people die outdoors, after refusing to enter a shelter where the policy is they are welcome, their "possessions" aren't. Would this woman still be alive if the shelters had not refused her possessions? Maybe. Maybe not, we have no way of knowing. Even if the City gets more "affordable" housing to give the homeless a place to live, it will not solve the problem of homelessness. There are many people who refuse to live inside, and will always be "homeless" Right now, in the GVRD there is a massive shortage of affordable housing. I know this, because I work in an SRO building 3/4 of a block from where this woman passed away, where we have 100% occupancy, to the level of a room only being vacant long enough for it to be cleaned after someone moves out. We do not have a list of people who are looking for places, the demand is to high, such a list would be thousands of names long. The tenancy of this building is roughly 90% mental health patients, most of whom also have addiction issues. I personally have seen to many of the VCPD going out of their way even when off duty to help the homeless in this city to believe they were responsible in any fashion for this incident.

Nick W.

December 21, 2008 - 2:12 PMFlag this as Inappropriate

James...the cop didn't "give" her the lighter, he just let her use it to light a cigarette. Any excuse to bash a cop, right? Cop-haters...always the first ones to call 9-1-1, though.


December 21, 2008 - 1:20 PMFlag this as Inappropriate

Nobody talks of 'free will'. Yes, this is yet another tragic story in a long line of tragic stories. The choice of having children is a matter of free will. She was someone's daughter. How does a person's life end-up like this? We as a society are quick and ready to 'champion a cause' for the often misguided sake of our own egos and yet have no idea where our own children are. Some kids are born to great parents, many are not. So many people are ill-equipt 'to even be parents' and yet choose to have children anyway. There is something dreadfully wrong with out guilt-driven society. We are for the most part quite disconnected from each other's 'needs' as caring human beings. This woman refused to come in from the cold. In our society we have the right to free will. If that is taken away, so goes the spark of life. Too many kids are raised in homes by parents 'needing' parents. Perhaps we need to intervene with preventitive solutions at the beginning of life rather than maintenance solutions at the end. Then perhaps we can make some inroads into breaking the cycle of homelessness. This police officer 'tried' to reason with her but she refused. 'She' asked for his lighter. Should she have been commited? Free will.. it's a beautiful thing.


December 21, 2008 - 10:54 AMFlag this as Inappropriate

Very sad some of the comments here. This lady deserved much better in life. Perhaps she was mentally ill, perhaps she was abused as a child which in most cases leads to low self esteem and the inability to hold a job even if you wanted too. What crass, ignorant people we have commenting here. Perhaps you should educate yourself before you spew your garbage. Obviously you know nothing about mental illness and poverty.

Nicole L.

December 21, 2008 - 10:33 AMFlag this as Inappropriate

As a 47 year old who was obviously a familiar face throughout the downtown Eastside, it is fair to surmise that she had become extremely entrenched in street lifestyle. I have spent time immersed in that environment myself: It is apparent that being reduced to the level of poverty where a shopping cart and some blankets are your only worldly possessions are enough to induce insanity in even the most logical, intelligent person. More preventative measures are necessary: What about an increase in shelter space (especially for women, who have significantly fewer options than men when it comes to overnight safe-houses) and food and clothing sources? That way, it is less likely that people such as Tracy will reach the point of desparity that induces hopelessness and resignation. If the government can dole out millions for the 2010 Olympics, surely they can afford to set up more locations (or at least make the existing ones more equipped to provide actual help, versus a place to flop) that give some sanctuary to the city's homeless.


December 21, 2008 - 8:25 AMFlag this as Inappropriate

This is very sad and quite unacceptable for country like Canada. I pass by homeless people on my way to work every day and can't believe that this is happening in countries like Canada. Where are social services? Where are the opportunities and help to provide assistance and so highly adverstised notion that Canadians are "nice" people?


December 21, 2008 - 8:25 AMFlag this as Inappropriate

This is very sad and quite unacceptable for country like Canada. I pass by homeless people on my way to work every day and can't believe that this is happening in countries like Canada. Where are social services? Where are the opportunities and help to provide assistance and so highly adverstised notion that Canadians are "nice" people?


December 21, 2008 - 1:31 AMFlag this as Inappropriate

the night is a harsh mistress, I have been there so please do not judge this women,She died alone and did not judge you,

Daniel B

December 20, 2008 - 11:53 PMFlag this as Inappropriate

I have been a Meth addict. I have Been Homeless, I used to squat under the stage of Malkin Bowl in Stanley park. It took me years to quit meth. If i hadn't asked for help, and made some better choices...i would be dead too. Now I am a Taxpaying, productive member of the community. We live in a place where people are able to get the help they need. We take these avenues of self empowerment away from people, then we are far worse than any intolerant, self serving society we can imagine. As a rich country, with a good sense of community, and social wealth, we NEED, and can not afford to not provide services to folks who are in a bad spot, who need the simple basics, like shelter, food. Some of the comments here make me wonder where some people come from. Somewhere darker than the deepest alcoves, in the deepest alleys of the skids i suppose. I tip my hat to those who treated this woman with kind words, encouragement, and with dignity. To the rest of you, the current gov has coined the phase "The best place on Earth". To bad we don't have the best people on Earth. I have no mercy, nor patience for you.

john boy

December 20, 2008 - 11:49 PMFlag this as Inappropriate

living alone on the streets is beyond tragic.for a women it is unthinkable.we can send criminals to club med B,C, jails and treat them like kings at taxpayer expence but this little lady gets hot chcolate and a lighter,


December 20, 2008 - 7:42 PMFlag this as Inappropriate

I phoned the police almost a year ago, when I saw a homeless man with what looked like lit candles in his makeshift shelter. I was worried that there would be a fire. The police came and forced the man to extinguish the lit candles. Using lit candles inside a makeshift shelter to keep warm is asking for trouble. The police who lent the now deceased homeless woman a lighter to light her candles, has got to lack good judgment.

The Voice of Experience

December 20, 2008 - 6:56 PMFlag this as Inappropriate

Am I missing something here? Nowhere do I see the information in the article that she was a 'meth addict' ~ is this just an automatic assumption on someone's part that to be homeless on the streets is due to addiction only? I've read some pretty callous entries on here and, in all truth, hope that the writers never have to face some of the decisions that Tracey must have been making. If she was refusing help, there is also the likelihood that she was unmedicated and not in a state to be able to make cogent decisions. But, of course, that's all her fault too, right? Yuh, she choose to be poor, mentally ill, perhaps a history of being economically forced to live in haphazard and hazardous surroundings to the point where the streets are safer, afraid of losing her possessions... Because she may have been unable to understand the ramifications of her refusals to accept help, she certainly deserved to to die alone and in a barbaric manner on a bitch cold night amidst concrete towers. Right? Because she was ill, poor, street entrenched she must have been lazy, incompetent and the author of all her misfortunes. And while we are at it, we'll let the naysayers take the time to scoop up other slurs and calumnies to vilify her with ~ she's not here to defend herself. Do I sound rather pissed off? I hope so because I find it harder and harder to understand people who are so sure the sun rises and sets in their armpits that they refuse to make any effort to understand those who have lost their way. For many of the 'Tracey's' you see there isn't the choice of being so complacently smug about daily living and survival.


December 20, 2008 - 2:29 PMFlag this as Inappropriate

The homeless will rise up during the Olympics and sabotage all the skating events by shining laser pens into some the athletes eyes.


December 20, 2008 - 1:47 PMFlag this as Inappropriate

I agree with Paul. He hit the bullseye. She would have had to give up everything for a warm bed. As for some people who assume that she was a "meth addict"... I lived in a shelter in the United States for seven months because of crimes committed by a state government, which rendered me unable to survive in mainstream society. I have NEVER failed or refused a drug or alcohol test. I have never been charged (let alone convicted) of so much as shoplifting. I wish people could have seen me looking for work with blisters on my feet and being told that I would not be hired because of fraudulant records. To this day, I cannot pay Canadian taxes. Why? Because "the Americans will not like it". The blind, regressive social policies that put people in this situation are being shoved on Canada by the Conservative (Reform Party) minority. It makes me sick when people assume that everyone in her situation is there due to their own fault. We all need to wake up

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