Homeless in Vancouver: The etiquette of checking a street person for signs of life

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      The steady rise of homelessness in Vancouver over the last 20 years has gone a long way to desensitizing us to the sight of it, but most of us still worry for the people who we see sitting and laying unconscious in public places.

      Speaking for myself, I hope that all these sleepers I see really are sleeping but I don’t necessarily know that. What I do know is that alongside the increase in homelessness, there has lately been a terrible increase in the toxicity of opioid street drugs and I know that a fatal overdose can be as innocent-looking as someone going to sleep.

      And I think that maybe Ted, the homeless man who died in Tim Hortons last week, would still be alive today if people had not assumed that he was sleeping.

      So, because of fentanyl analogs and all the other potential causes of medical distress, I am never shy about waking up homeless and so-called street-embedded people If something about their appearance gives me cause for concern.

      Check when the way and where of a sleeping person is all wrong

      Worrisome-looking sleeper I woke up off Hemlock Street at 7:09 a.m. on June 4.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      People who appear to be sleeping in an orderly and deliberate fashion, e,g., bundled up in blankets or sleeping bags and carefully situated in a covered location, are frankly the least of my concern.

      The people I always check on are the ones who appear to be unintentionally asleep in especially inappropriate places, as if they just passed out suddenly, without intending to.

      Checking to see if someone is harmlessly sleeping means waking them up, even if only for a moment and I always try to do this in a respectful way, like so:

      • Call to them while standing at a safe distance, just out of their arm’s reach, being mindful that some homeless people, when startled awake, may be defensively aggressive, as well as momentarily disoriented.
      • Say something simple and explanatory, like: “Hey, ma'am/sir/mister/buddy! Are you okay?” Do not say “sorry”—such false sincerity can tick off many street types.
      • If the person remains unresponsive and you feel comfortable doing so, get close enough to prod or shake their shoulder while you ask them if they are okay.
      • If, by their lack of response, or other physical signs (such as absence of visible respiration, or cold, bluish skin), they appear to be in medical distress, do not hesitate to call 9-1-1.

      What I will never do to people is what I have heard of (or personally experienced) private security guards doing to induce consciousness. This includes yelling rudely, kicking or hitting, loudly clapping hands by ears, or flashing a bright light point blank at eyelids.

      I checked on this sleeper at a recycling depot on June 4 but the depot’s owner did it even better.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      Mind you, there may be other ways to coax a response from someone that are as polite as mine but more effective.

      On June 4, I found a binner zonked out by the entrance of the recycling depot, located at Ontario Street and 7th Avenue. The fellow was awkwardly sitting against a wall, with his head on his chest and his legs splayed out.

      I checked on this fellow in my usual fashion and, though I ended up having to gently shake his shoulder, I received a satisfactory response and let him be.

      About 15 minutes later, the owner of the depot saw the same guy outside, still sitting passed out against the wall.

      The owner called to him something along the lines of: “Hey buddy, are you all right?” And then: “Get up or I’ll have to call a paramedic.”

      There was no sign of life, the owner later told me, until he mentioned the paramedic, at which point, the fellow bounced to his feet like a jack-in-the-box.

      Whatever you do, though, as long as you do it respectfully, do not worry about disturbing the person you are checking on. No one in their right mind should be offended by your honest show of concern.

      Just remember to only do what you are comfortable doing and when in doubt, call 9-1-1.

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      Stanley Q. Woodvine is a homeless resident of Vancouver who has worked in the past as an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer. Follow Stanley on Twitter at @sqwabb.

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