Region's 3rd death in homeless encampment marks worrying trend, say advocates

Pointe Maligne Park encampment in Cornwall, Ont., in November, where 67-year-old Diane Hebert died. (Guy Quenneville/CBC - image credit)
Pointe Maligne Park encampment in Cornwall, Ont., in November, where 67-year-old Diane Hebert died. (Guy Quenneville/CBC - image credit)

Three people have been found dead in homeless encampments in eastern Ontario and the Outaouais this month, marking a disturbing trend advocates say is not only tragic, but preventable.

Police found one man dead in a tent Thursday evening at an encampment in Belle Park in Kingston, Ont.

Earlier that day, another man, Marc Jodoin, was found dead in a tent in Gatineau, Que.

A woman, identified by her family as 67-year-old Diane Hebert, also died at an encampment in Cornwall, Ont., on Nov. 5.

In each case, the cause of death is still unknown and all are under investigation.

"It's heartbreaking," said Sayyida Jaffer with Providence Centre, an organization that works with people experiencing homelessness in Kingston.

"Every death that happens in our community, particularly with people who are unhoused, is heartbreaking and devastating because it feels preventable."

Jaffer added while these are far from the first deaths in homeless encampments, "it's definitely getting worse," because of factors like extreme temperatures or an an increasingly toxic drug supply. Despite increased risks, homeless encampments have become widespread across the country.

"They have become really part of the urban landscape," said Leilani Farha, who served as special rapporteur on adequate housing for the United Nations from 2014 to 2020.

Kingston police say an investigation is underway after a body was found at a tent in Belle Park on the evening of Nov. 16, 2023.
Kingston police say an investigation is underway after a body was found at a tent in Belle Park on the evening of Nov. 16, 2023.

Kingston police say an investigation is underway after a body was found at a tent in Belle Park on Thursday. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

It's a trend largely driven by the housing crises across the country — with not enough long-term affordable housing options.

Shelters, which often come with rules of their own, are not always a viable option. Some don't allow pets, any drug use at all or require someone to be getting treatment.

Encampments offer people a certain degree of agency and relative safety, Jaffer said.

"If we really are serious about trying to end chronic homelessness and make sure everyone has a home, we need to really grapple with that and challenge the kinds of discrimination and stigma that exists in our systems."

In Ottawa, homeless encampments are at an all-time high, according to city officials who have responded to nearly 400 so far this year.

Problems are solvable

While there's no desire to have them become permanent, said Farha, "we do want people living there to have their basic human rights satisfied."

That includes access to clean water, sanitation, food and harm reduction services on-site, she said.

"None of it's rocket science. It's all doable. It's just sort of imagining what does someone need for a dignified life. What does someone need for stability and ensuring those things are made available?"

Tents behind police tape at the homeless encampment near Robert-Gertin Centre in Gatineau, Que., on Nov. 16, 2023, after a man was discovered dead inside his tent.
Tents behind police tape at the homeless encampment near Robert-Gertin Centre in Gatineau, Que., on Nov. 16, 2023, after a man was discovered dead inside his tent.

Tents behind police tape at the homeless encampment near Robert-Gertin Centre in Gatineau, Que., where Marc Jodoin was found dead in a tent Thursday. (Felix Desroches/Radio-Canada)

What's needed, both say, is for all levels of government to invest in solutions, particularly at the national level — something that has yet to happen.

"All of this is solvable. We are [a] rich country ... We can solve this and these are unnecessary deaths. It's just tragic," Farha said.