George Szabo has had some sleepless nights since Jan. 15, the morning when Hang Vo was struck and killed by a garbage truck driver in a downtown alleyway.
He thinks he might have been the last person to speak to Vo before the tragic incident. And he can’t quite shake off the idea that maybe he could have done more to save her life.
Szabo, a retired photographer who has been manning the security desk at the building near Adelaide St. and University Ave. for more than 15 years, remembers the quiet woman. Prior to that fateful morning, she had been seen sleeping over a grate at the entrance of an alleyway for the past two weeks. Szabo, as well as building operator Daniel Gareau, had repeatedly tried to warn her of potential dangers.
“I said, ‘do you hear me ma’am?’” recalled Szabo of their interaction that last evening. “She nodded. Then I said, ‘do you understand me?’ and she said, ‘yes.’ That is the only word I ever heard from her.”
Several hours later, on a dark and chilly Tuesday morning, a truck driver from Green For Life (GFL) Environmental backed into the tight alleyway to collect garbage. He struck Vo, 58, who was pronounced dead at the scene a few minutes later.
He doesn’t see many homeless people on the corner, and certainly had never seen anyone sleeping either on the sidewalk or in the alleyway until Vo showed up — which is why he kept trying to warn her.
Still, Szabo says he was saddened by this “senseless death” and continues to wonder if he could have changed anything about what happened.
“The only way for me to save her would have been to physically drag her inside the building. But I can’t do that,” he said, recalling that he specifically told her she could get killed if she kept sleeping at that corner. “How terribly ironic.”
Much of her identity and the circumstances that may have led to her ending up on the streets of Toronto have remained mysterious. Advocates believe she may have a brother who lives in Toronto. Toronto police, who initially appealed to the public for any information about Vo, confirmed Thursday they had found and notified her next of kin.
A spokesperson from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said they cannot share any details about specific cases due to privacy considerations.
But some available information reveal Vo had a complicated past that includes the loss of her immigration status.
According to documents tracked by various social workers and copies of which the Star has seen, Vo (full name Bich Hang Thi Vo) was born in Vietnam on Oct. 10, 1960. She immigrated to Canada and landed at Vancouver International Airport as a permanent resident on April 20, 1977. She was using a travel document issued in the Philippines, according to official documents.
What happened after that is unclear. So unclear, in fact, there’s a void of more than 30 years until Vo’s name surfaces again, this time in Hamilton, Ont.
A document signed by Hamilton CBSA on Oct. 27, 2009, indicates that Vo, until then a permanent resident, was convicted of two counts of fraud. The convictions took place on June 4, 2009, and the sentence details included 208 days of pre-sentence custody plus one day in jail, with a free-standing restitution of $45,068.65, according to the document.
Anna Pape, a spokesperson from the Immigration and Refugee Board, confirmed they have a record showing that Vo filed an appeal of a removal order issued against her on May 10, 2010.
“However, she failed to appear for her hearing and then again failed to attend at a date scheduled for her to explain why she did not appear for her hearing,” wrote Pape in an email to the Star. “Consequently, the Immigration Appeal Division determined that her appeal was abandoned.”
Multiple fraud-related criminal convictions would have been enough for Vo’s permanent resident status to be stripped, said Macdonald Scott, a Toronto immigration consultant and advocate with No One Is Illegal — a Toronto group advocating for the rights of migrants regardless of their status.
Some countries, including Vietnam in the past, do not want to take back their deportees, he said, adding this includes particularly people who fled Vietnam in the 1970s or those who have criminal convictions and/or mental health issues.
“So she was caught between a rock and a hard place with that,” he said.
Scott said Vo wouldn’t have been eligible to stay in subsidized housing after that, as the Ontario Housing Services Act requires an immigration status.
He said “sometimes people fall into bad and criminal behaviour,” but he doesn’t think that should mean we take away their rights and put their life in jeopardy.
Longtime activist with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty Gaetan Heroux agreed that Vo’s loss of her permanent residency might have been a turning point.
“It would have caused her havoc,” he said, noting he has come across many cases of people whose lives are turned upside down after going through such experiences.
“So she winds up in Toronto,” he said, noting she may have been trying to apply for housing or welfare, and becoming frustrated. “There’s a lot of pressure for someone who doesn’t have papers.”
But Vo did receive some help. One document shows she stayed at the Salvation Army’s Evangeline Residence in Toronto’s west end, starting Oct. 19, 2016. There’s no information as to when she left. No one at the Evangeline Residence responded to the Star’s repeated requests for a comment.
Nasrin Safary, an outreach worker with Neighbourhood Link Support Services, said she met with Vo in early 2017. Vo was looking for help filling out an application for status verification or replacement of an immigration document.
“She was really quiet,” she said, describing Vo as someone who wanted to just talk about her case and nothing else. “Her accent was heavy but I could understand her very well.”
She said Vo only had a copy of her landing document, and there was no record of working anywhere, even though original documents show she came to Canada on a work visa. She said Vo may have dealt with mental health issues during her time in Canada, and appeared confused about the loss of her immigration status.
When a response for her application came back three months later, it indicated that Citizenship and Immigration Canada listed Vo’s status as a foreign national. Her permanent resident status had been relinquished on May 12, 2010, according to the document.
“She was in shock when she found out. She got very upset and very angry,” said Safary, noting that people dealing with homelessness and/or mental health problems are often living on the streets or going from shelter to shelter without realizing their immigration status has changed.
As a social worker often helping homeless people who sometimes don’t have immigration status, Safary said Vo’s death has increased her worry about their fate.
“It’s very sad. It makes you wonder when it’s going to happen to the next person,” she said.
Gilbert Ngabo is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @dugilbo