Childhood friends of Kevin Dickman, a homeless man who drowned in the Don River last month, are “saddened” by his death and raising money to ensure his unmarked grave gets a headstone.
“A lot of us are in shock … to hear of his death and the life that he led,” said Maureen Sim, who grew up with Dickman on Roberts Cres. in Brampton, but lost touch with him. She and other neighbours and classmates learned of his demise in a Star story last Saturday.
“We are deeply saddened by the news,” added Sim, who is now a Grade 5 teacher at Russell D. Barber Public School in Brampton. “If only we had known how to help him over the years.”
“Kevin and I went to high school together,” Eric Crossland wrote in an email. “We weren’t direct friends, but we had common friends. He was always pleasant and with a smile. A good kid.”
Dickman, 62, is among scores of homeless people who have died in Toronto this year amid a deepening homelessness and affordable housing crisis in the city. Emergency shelters and respite centres have been full or near capacity since the summer.
City staff announced plans last week to add almost 500 more permanent and temporary spots for the winter. But advocates for the homeless say at least 2,000 more shelter beds are desperately needed to prevent more deaths.
At Queen’s Park on Friday, the NDP’s poverty and homelessness critic, Rima Berns-McGown, slammed Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government for cancelling an annual census of those living on the streets.
“Ford wants to hide the facts because he knows they’re only getting worse as a result of his callous cuts,” she said in a statement.
Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark told The Canadian Press earlier this month that the census has been put on hold while the government addresses data gaps.
The names of eight people, including Dickman’s, were added Tuesday to the Toronto Homeless Memorial. All died in the past month.
The Star attended Dickman’s funeral and burial Oct. 24, one of more than 2,000 services the city funds for the homeless, indigent and those who have not left enough funds behind to cover the cost.
As community support worker Paula Tookey told about two dozen of her colleagues who attended the service, Dickman “hated being homeless — being dirty, tired and cold. Being alone.”
Dickman broke into schools and garages to sleep. He was “in and out of emergency rooms, and in and out of jails for years. Decades,” added Tookey who met him while working at a transitional housing program in the early 1990s and became friends.
Dickman had a happy childhood until he was about 10 when his father died unexpectedly in hospital during a routine medical procedure.
In an attempt to ease Dickman’s sorrow, his mother contacted a local mentorship agency who paired him with a police officer. But the officer turned out to be a child molester, a horror uncovered by another boy who was also abused and who reported the officer, Tookey said Dickman told her. But no charges were ever laid.
The trauma of the abuse haunted Dickman for the rest of his life as he sank into petty crime, substance abuse and homelessness, Tookey said. Although his behaviour caused his family to sever ties, Dickman longed to be reunited, she said.
“His life was hard and his death preventable and heartbreaking. There are a lot of people like Kevin,” Tookey added.
Sim and other childhood friends who contacted the Star after reading the story recall hearing about the abuse Dickman endured at the hands of the officer and are devastated at how it altered the course of his life.
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“I hadn’t seen Kevin in years and was so sad to hear about how he lived and how he died,” said Pam Hand, a retired Brampton police officer and former classmate.
“He did not deserve the life he had to live,” she said in an email. “The system failed him for the first time when the officer was not charged.”
Sim told her students about Dickman and urged them to read his story, noting many homeless people grew up in middle-class homes.
“I told my Grade 5s, he was just a regular kid that came from a nice neighbourhood,” she said. The story “has pulled the heart strings for so many people.”
Dickman had attended William G. Davis Public School and later, Brampton Centennial Secondary School.
To honour Dickman’s memory, former classmate Tom Regehr started a GoFundMe campaign this week that has so far raised almost $3,000 to buy a headstone. The group hopes to engrave some of the words of a poem Dickman wrote during a time of hope in his life.