Death of homeless man devastates front-line workers who tried to help

Debby Warren, executive director of Ensemble Moncton, is brought to tears as she recounts how she and her staff tried to help find a warm bed for one of their clients who had overdosed. He was later found dead downtown.  (Pierre Fournier/CBC - image credit)
Debby Warren, executive director of Ensemble Moncton, is brought to tears as she recounts how she and her staff tried to help find a warm bed for one of their clients who had overdosed. He was later found dead downtown. (Pierre Fournier/CBC - image credit)

With the number of homeless people growing, and temperatures plunging, the death of a man in downtown Moncton early Tuesday is being blamed on a lack of emergency shelter and support.

Debby Warren, executive director of Ensemble Moncton, said the man overdosed at the charity's overdose prevention site Monday afternoon.

Staff revived him, but Warren was unable to find a bed for him that night. He was found dead hours later in the public bathroom outside city hall.

Warren started to cry when she thought back to that day and how, after 90 minutes on the phone trying to get help for the man, she was turned down. Her staff worried that if he was left outside in the cold, he would not survive the night.

WATCH | Debby Warren describes how a homeless man's death has been devastating for staff

"The individual was not in a good state health-wise, and my staff were extremely concerned," she said.

There are hundreds of people in the Moncton area who are homeless, and spend their nights trying to find shelter to stay warm. The emergency shelters in the city are full, and Warren said that despite her best efforts and a call to a government help line, she was unsuccessful.

'It was crushing'

In desperation, Warren tried the Department of Social Development's emergency phone line because in the past, the department has provided a hotel room. She was told by the person she spoke with that the "protocol" had recently changed, and this service was no longer possible.

"I explained to her the emergency and the health condition of this individual — that I was gravely concerned for his well being and she, unfortunately, was powerless to help me," Warren said.

CBC News has asked the Department of Social Development what its plan is for the coming winter with the shelters full, and the number of people living outside in Moncton in the hundreds. CBC also asked what the policy around emergency hotel rooms is, and whether it has changed.

Spokesperson Rebecca Howland said, "contracts still need to be completed and signed before details can be released" about the plan for the winter.

She did not answer the questions on the policy about emergency hotel rooms, or provide anyone for an interview.

"The Department of Social Development works on a case-by-case basis to provide support to New Brunswickers in desperate situations," Howland said in an email.

"Anyone who feels they are in a desperate situation is encouraged to call the main line for the Department of Social Development at 1-833-733-7835."

Warren said when the man left Ensemble on Monday evening, he was very weak, and walking and talking were difficult.

"You're pretty vulnerable when you're out on the street by yourself, in the dark."

On Tuesday morning, she heard RCMP had found a man in his late 20s dead outside city hall. Warren feared it was him.

"It was quite awful. My staff all day were wondering," she said. "You don't want it to be any individual."

Shane Magee/CBC
Shane Magee/CBC

Eventually, she confirmed it was the same man.

"It was crushing," Warren said. "I did not know what to do for this gentleman — I had gone everywhere, I had tried my best to find places for this person to go."

She explained that he refused to go to the hospital, which is common for people who use drugs, because "they aren't always treated with the greatest of respect when they show up."

Forgotten New Brunswickers

Warren says this is not the first time she and her staff have been unable to find a safe place for a client.

She is emotional when she talks about what it is like for her and her staff to leave people on their front steps wrapped in blankets at the end of the day, because there is no shelter available.

"It's been building and nobody listens," she said. "We're charities, we're non-profits and we're exhausted."

For the past two months Warren has been sending emails regularly to Social Development, begging for a place for people who are homeless and struggling with addiction to go.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

On Monday afternoon, after having exhausted all the options for this man, she wrote again to Minister Dorothy Shephard with the subject line "Forgotten NBers."

"Once again I am reaching out in desperation on behalf of the individuals Ensemble serves," she said. "Clearly there are gaps when it comes to providing support/services to people who use substances."

"Today with wind chill the temperature is about -8. Not pleasant for sleeping outdoors. Can you please tell me how we can humanely turn this and other individuals out into the cold of winter?"

Gaps in services for most vulnerable inhumane

Warren wants Shephard and members of her government to visit Ensemble and the other front line service providers in the City.

"I try to be respectful," Warren said of the emails she writes. "It's not easy to govern, but I want to tell you it's not easy to take an individual and leave them on the doorstep overnight."

Warren believes that after one day of doing what she and her staff do, elected officials would find a way to act more quickly and responsibly.

Vanessa Blanch/CBC
Vanessa Blanch/CBC

"Come and sleep on my deck for one or two nights, and you'll soon learn the importance of a quick decision," she said.

"And please don't brag about having a large surplus when New Brunswickers are sleeping on the street."

Harvest House opens daytime warming centre

At Harvest House Atlantic, one of Moncton's two shelters, the 65 emergency beds are full. Executive director Marc Belliveau told CBC News the shelter has been over capacity since August.

Even so, this week Harvest House began operating a daytime warming centre from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., which can accommodate 60 people in addition to those staying there.

Shane Magee/CBC
Shane Magee/CBC

Belliveau said in the past week, daily meal counts have increased from 220 per day, to 350 per day and there is no way the organization can continue without additional support from government.

"Harvest House Atlantic is grieved by the current situation," Belliveau wrote in an email. "Our City is in a difficult situation right now and all of our agencies on the front-lines are at the breaking point."

Like other non-profits, charities and church groups, Belliveau expressed frustration that winter is here, and there are no options for people who need shelter.

"The fact that this has come down to late November to begin discussing this situation is sad. Our agencies cannot continue to operate with limited funding and resources and be expected time and again to increase our support in the community."

Tori Weldon/CBC
Tori Weldon/CBC

Greatest fear has become reality

After finding out that the man who was found dead in downtown Moncton was the same man she'd tried to help, Warren sat down and wrote yet another email to Shephard and other members of the Blaine Higgs government to tell them the tragic outcome.

In the email, Warren expressed her concern and frustration with what she had gone through trying to find shelter for this man and told them how her greatest fear had become reality.

"And I haven't heard one word from them," she said later. "Not one word."