Dying for shelter: One man’s life and death on Edmonton’s streets

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EDMONTON—Heather Legarde is holding the ashes of her late husband outside the homeless shelter where he took his last breath.

She is standing at the Herb Jamieson Centre, a men’s shelter in Edmonton’s inner city, steps away from where Randy Legarde’s body was found early on the morning of Nov. 26, 2018.

In her hands is a small heart-shaped urn made of birchbark leather, displaying a flower stitched in white, green and blue porcupine quills. Inside, his ashes are wrapped in fabric made of white deer hide. Randy always loved nature and being outdoors.

The circumstances of his death are not completely clear. Through the medical examiner’s office, Legarde learned the cause of death was either an enlarged liver, or issues with his heart or pancreas, all alcohol related.

Edmonton Police say downtown division members were in the area on an unrelated call when they “saw the man lying on the ground in front of the shelter.” Alberta Health Services confirmed to Star Edmonton that they found a man’s body at the shelter at 6:21 a.m. that morning.

Legarde finds it hard to accept that Randy, 51, died alone directly in front of a homeless shelter. But what bothers her more than the circumstances of his death is that he was outside of that shelter, or others like it, every day for the last 10 years of his life.

“It’s not the day he died that’s the problem; it’s the fact that was (his) best and only option,” she said. “If we could have done better than putting people on mats on floor for years and years with no real path out, he wouldn’t have died anywhere at that age.”

Heather Legarde stands at the Herb Jamieson Centre, a homeless shelter in Edmonton where her late husband was found dead on Nov. 26, 2018.

So it pains her to know that the Hope Mission, which operates the Herb Jamieson, is planning to build a brand new 24/7 shelter with 400 shelter beds, thanks to an $8 million commitment from the UCP government, which they are aiming to match with donations. They have raised $6 million so far. The province is not funding the construction of any new affordable housing projects in Edmonton in its 2019/20 budget and slashed the overall affordable housing budget for capital projects in half, from $1.2 billion to $612 million for the next four years.

It doesn’t sit well with Legarde.

“The whole let’s build a bigger shelter, like are you kidding? All the statistics about homeless people, about the hospital admissions, the drain on police and EMS, and how much they cost per year if they add up all the services — that is what a shelter mat buys you,” Legarde said.

The Calgary Homeless Foundation estimates it costs about $35,000 annually to house someone, including with supports. It costs taxpayers about $95,000 a year to cover emergency services for one homeless individual.

Edmonton’s plan to end homelessness says 900 units of permanent supportive housing, which includes on-site supports for people with addictions, physical or mental disabilities and other complex needs, are required over the next six years.

“Our highest priority on the affordable housing and homelessness front is permanent supportive housing, which we’ve received no money for. The only money that came into Edmonton for housing and homelessness was directly to that shelter,” said Scott McKeen, the Edmonton city councillor for the downtown ward where much of Edmonton’s homelessness is concentrated.

“And I think if they’d asked experts or council members in Edmonton we would have said ‘Well, we could probably use that money in other ways, to better ends.’ ”

He says the provincial government is sending mixed messages by saying they need to reduce costs everywhere else, while funding a homeless shelter without a long-term plan to end homelessness.

“I would suggest there is some hypocrisy in their messaging.”

Edmonton has set aside about $134 million for affordable housing in its 2019-22 budget, with about $40 million going toward land for the 900 supportive housing units. They’re asking the province to put in $124 million to make the dream a reality.

That money remains unaccounted for. The province says its $619 million capital plan, which is for the entire province over four years, will deliver “2,700 new and regenerated affordable housing units” and also help maintain existing units. Christel Kjenner, Edmonton’s director of housing and homelessness, said the city is hopeful the province will fund future capital projects in Edmonton in next year’s budget.

But it remains to be seen.

Randy, known as Gator on the street, was interviewed by Gareth Hampshire, a former reporter for CBC Edmonton, for a winter clothing drive two years ago.

In the CBC story, posted on Nov. 27, 2017, Legarde is quoted as saying “Without the clothes, we’ll freeze to death.”

Almost one year later, to the day, Randy was found dead.

There are questions that haunt Legarde about Randy’s last night. She says police told her staff at the Herb Jamieson spoke with Randy at about 3 a.m. How was he found dead three hours later?

“I’ve just always wondered about the timeline,” she said in a followup email after meeting with Star Edmonton. “Was he left out there, sick and in a T-shirt, after staff talked to him at 3? Was he invited in and refused? Was he really sick enough to be dead within an hour or two, yet had no symptoms? Did they actually even check on him at all?”

Staring at the reinforced steel doors Randy was reportedly found outside of, she wonders if something could have been done to prevent his death.

“It feels like failure,” Legarde said. “Like we failed him, and we fail everyone else walking down this street past us.

“It makes me sad that this is where people’s stories end.”

Randy Legarde was born on May 6, 1967 in northern Ontario, a member of Long Lake First Nation. He was part of the Sixties Scoop; his biological parents died when he was two and he was split up from all of his siblings except one older brother.

She said his foster family was “abusive and horrible in every possible way.” Legarde carried the scars from his childhood his entire life.

The couple met at church in Winnipeg. Legarde remembers him for his humour, his distinct “half smile” and his blunt manner of speaking.

He enjoyed driving fast, wearing leather jackets and had a deep appreciation for Kentucky Fried Chicken — a fact that made it into his obituary.

Randy Legarde learns how to play video games with his son, David. Despite experiencing homelessness and having an addiction to alcohol, Legarde's wife said he made an effort to stay in his son's life.

When Legarde met Randy, he was undertaking a yearlong live-in addictions treatment program at the church. He’d managed to overcome his alcohol addiction, for a time.

One of the things that made her fall in love with him was his big heart. She remembers how he would go out of his way to encourage shy children to attend church programs.

“He really had an eye for people that were left out,” she said.

The couple moved to Edmonton and married in 2005. It was a small, intimate gathering, as they didn’t have a lot of money. Legarde remembers taking the bus in her wedding dress. But they were happy.

Two years later, she found out she was pregnant. The news seemed to catch Randy off guard.

“It was while I was pregnant that he really went back to drinking. By that time, he was already a few months back into street life and a fairly severe addiction,” Legarde said.

Randy had triggers that would remind him of childhood trauma. Parents yelling at their children would cause him to freeze up. He also hated the feeling of being confined — one reason Legarde believes he felt at ease out in the open on the streets.

Randy found comfort in his bible, Legarde said.

“I think it gave him a lot of peace to know that as much as life was out of his control, and never was able to turn out the way he wanted it to in his heart, that there was still someone out there looking out for his best,” she said.

Throughout his life, but especially in his final years, Randy turned to alcohol to deal with childhood trauma.

By February 2007, Randy was living on the street. He had been drinking and disappearing for days or weeks at a time for about six months before that. The final straw for Legarde was one day when he came home drunk and got physical with her. He’d never done it before, but it forced her to make a choice and demand that he get help.

For the first year or two when he was experiencing homelessness, he would couch surf, or get an apartment for a few months before losing it. The only constant was his drinking.

In 2017, Randy met Gareth Hampshire, the CBC reporter who now lives in Nova Scotia. One memory that stands out for Hampshire is how Randy would collect gloves, hats and scarves and give them to other people on the street.

“He would be out there carrying a backpack full of warm clothes to help other desperate people,” Hampshire said.

He remembers Randy was resigned to a life of homelessness.

“I’m pretty sure he said to me at one point ‘No, I don’t have any hope to get into housing.’ He just learned that that was it.”

In an interview with Hampshire, conducted for CBC News two years ago, Randy was brutally honest about his alcohol addiction.

“I depend on the shelters,” Randy says, his voice hoarse, his face weathered. “I depend on these drop-in centres, because I don’t have nothing now. I’m broken. I can’t break the cycle, because I’m a chronic alcoholic.”

Despite his circumstances, Legarde says Randy did make an effort to be a part of their son David’s life. They would meet for lunch, or at the library, where David would teach Randy how to play video games.

“He was not disinterested,” Legarde said. “He was not disinterested,” Legarde said. “I think the addiction really robbed him of what he really wanted … one of the things he wanted more than anything was to get to be the father that he never had.”

About a year before he died, Legarde remembers meeting Randy for lunch in Churchill Square. She was alarmed by his pallor and said he was “kind of yellow.” She asked him if he’d seen a doctor.

“And he said ‘Yeah that’s what I wanted to tell you. I went to the doctor and he said it’s my liver and I need to stop drinking or I’m going to die. And then he just hugged me, and it was really sad.

“Because we both knew he couldn’t stop drinking.”

Vance Whitfield is one of about 500 Edmontonians who choose to sleep outside rather than at local shelters. He is pictured at a homeless camp in the inner city where he lives.

On a chilly November afternoon outside the Hope Mission, a man lies trembling on the cold concrete as a large lunch lineup snakes around the building. No one is alarmed.

A person walking by approaches him and asks him if he’s OK. He shakes his head no.

“He needs help! I think he has hypothermia,” the passerby screams to a Hope Mission staff member, as another man approaches and lays a brown mink blanket on him.

“He’s seizuring,” a staff member says into a radio handset, before calling 911.

Once they realize the man is in distress, more people move to help and speak with him until an ambulance arrives.

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Across the street, Vance Whitfield is shovelling a parking spot, one of the odd jobs he does to get by. Whitfield, originally from the Lac la Biche area, has been living on Edmonton’s streets for about eight years. He’s one of about 500 Edmontonians who choose to sleep rough rather than in the city’s shelters.

He lives in a makeshift homeless encampment situated against a fence near an LRT crossing. The encampment gives him a place to set up his tent and keep a few necessities, but more important to him is the sense of community and camaraderie.

“I stay out here for my bros,” Vance says. To him, the inner city community is like a family, with elders on the street serving as folks’ moms and dads.

He says one of the main reasons he avoids shelters is because of rules around drugs and alcohol.

“I’d rather stay out here than a place like that, especially with the rules and the people they have enforcing those rules,” he said. “It’s not right that they’re picking on guys who are drunk or who had it rough and are injured up.”

As of January 2019, there were about 1,923 Edmontonians experiencing homelessness. Of those, 25 per cent were unsheltered. Most were men between the ages of 25 and 44. Half identified as Indigenous.

A recent city report found that on any given night, the city’s main emergency shelter, the Hope Mission, only reaches 70 per cent capacity.

“People sleeping outside is not unique to Edmonton, but what is unique is the volume of people sleeping outside when there is sufficient capacity within the shelter system on any given night,” the report reads.

In contrast, shelters that accommodate people with addictions or mental and physical disabilities routinely meet capacity. The 24/7 intox centre at the Hope Mission, known on the streets as the “Snake Pit,” is consistently at or over capacity, as are shelter beds at the George Spady Society, which caters to people active in their addiction.

It makes some, like Councillor McKeen, question why the provincial government is funding a new emergency homeless shelter when the existing one is underutilized.

“Already, we have the informal camps because we have hundreds of people saying I’d rather this than that. And that is a problem,” McKeen said. “To me … that’s the data that proves that we need to work with Hope Mission to change its operating procedures somewhat.”

Hope Mission did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

There are many reasons people choose to sleep outside rather than at the Hope Mission, including feeling unsafe, a lack of privacy, overcrowding, excessive rules and theft. The most common complaint, however, was about the attitude of staff.

Craig Wolfe, a millwright who has been homeless since about 2010, said he chooses to sleep outside because he doesn’t like how Hope Mission staff treats clients. He says he’s had belongings stolen and that the place is unclean. He showed Star Edmonton a cockroach he says he collected during his time at the Hope.

“They treat you like a third class citizen,” Wolfe said, adding that staff will “invent some story” to kick somebody out.

Johnny Lee, who was previously without a home, but is now in stable housing, also said staff seemed to arbitrarily choose who could stay and who had to go.

“If they felt you’re disrespecting them … They’ll use that authority and they’ll make excuses to kick (people) out,” Lee said. “ ‘Oh, you’re drunk, let me smell your breath,’ or ‘You’re abusing me, as a staff member.’ For even the slightest thing they’ll kick somebody out.”

The reasons given for avoiding shelters are often summed up as the ‘Five Ps’: Partners, possessions, pets, policies and pests.

But there’s a joke in the inner city about another P that is left out — Proselytizing.

Craig Wolfe outside Boyle Street Community Services in Edmonton in November. Wolfe detailed some of his experiences with the Hope Mission.

Several people experiencing homelessness told Star Edmonton that the reason they don’t stay at the Hope is because of the shelter’s faith-based programming.

Wolfe described being woken up at around 6:30 a.m. by a staff member who would start “screaming scripture.”

“At the George Spady they wake us up with temperatures and who won the hockey game last night,” said Clarke Janvier. He’s originally from a First Nation near Cold Lake, but has lived on Edmonton’s streets for most of his life.

“At the Hope, they wake us up with scripture. That’s the main reason why I hate staying there … I always try and leave before six o’clock so I don’t have to listen to that bullshit,” he said.

Matthew Deveau, who worked at the Hope Mission from 2013 to 2018, said he frequently heard from clients that it felt like staff were “Prioritizing delivering a faith message over providing basic services.”

What he said he found most harmful was how staff would say: “Well, the reason people here are experiencing homelessness, addiction and poverty is because they’re sinners and they’re not repenting sinners.”

Deveau questions if the Christian organization’s faith-based messaging gets in the way of their service delivery.

He said there’s also an “ideological bias” against the LGBTQ community that permeates the entire organization and told a story about one two-spirited woman who was forced to stay on the men’s side of the shelter because staff refused to recognize her gender expression.

“It was a fight nearly every night … to get her into the women’s shelter.”

In late March, Jason Kenney, then the leader of the UCP, was a surprise guest speaker at the Herb Jamieson Centre, where he spoke of how he respects the work the organization does and committed to funding a new shelter if the UCP was elected. Earlier that month, he posted on Facebook about how he participated in the organization’s Cold Hands Warm Hearts event and why he supported the Hope Mission.

Some wonder if the UCP government is choosing to fund a Christian organization for ideological reasons.

“It quacks and talks like that kind of duck,” said McKeen, the city councillor. “And everybody I’ve talked to has sort of raised that suspicion.”

Cynthia Puddu, an assistant professor at MacEwan University who did her dissertation on the experiences of homeless youth in downtown Edmonton, was more pointed in her reading of why the government is funding a new homeless shelter, but slashing the budget for new affordable housing projects.

“It’s hard to say it doesn’t come from a place of ideology when the funding is going to these types of organizations, yet they’re putting a hold to safe injection sites and supervised consumption sites,” she said. “And when you look at the language being used by that government … talking about (people) putting poison in their arms.”

Randy Legarde spent the last 10 years of his life on the street, addicted to alcohol.

Permanent supportive housing would provide people like him with the opportunity to break the cycle of addiction and start on a path of healing by providing peer programs, counselling for dealing with addiction and support with mental and physical health challenges. Advocates say those supports are critically important so people don’t continually find themselves back on the street.

It is, as McKeen calls it, a medical approach to a medical condition.

“Our homeless people, especially the ones sleeping rough, are really wounded and really ill and they need housing and health care,” McKeen said. “And for a lot of them, having a huge shelter doesn’t make sense.”

McKeen is curious to see how the new Herb Jamieson building will operate. He said he appreciates that faith-based organizations stepped up to do the work no one else was doing, but hopes to see them “move the dial 10 degrees.”

“It’s our hope that their staff is more trauma informed. I would love if there was an elder in residence as well as a pastor in residence,” he said.

Heather Legarde stands at the Herb Jamieson Centre, a homeless shelter in Edmonton where her late husband was found dead on Nov. 26, 2018. In her hands is an urn she made for his ashes.

Legarde would like to see more facilities like Ambrose Place, a permanent supportive housing complex with a focus on Indigenous programming. It’s named after Ambrose Daniels, an Indigenous man who died of pneumonia on Edmonton’s streets. The complex includes a program that treats people addicted to alcohol with hourly, measured doses of wine.

Legarde believes if Randy had housing with access to treatment and supports, he would still be alive.

“If you’re fighting for a shelter mat every night, or if it’s too scary and gross and your stuff gets stolen and you’re trying to sleep in a bush, how are you supposed to work through not only the addiction, but the trauma that underlies most of these addictions?”

“They should have more places like Ambrose Place,” she added, “and less gross mats on floor when people camp in the river valley anyway.”

“Because that’s not a path out. That’s a death sentence.”





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