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DEAD END STREETS

In the first part of a Globe series on homelessness in Vancouver, MARK HUME looks at the complex life and tragic death of a promising would-be musician

From Monday's Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER — It was miserable on the streets of Vancouver the night Francis Monroe McAllister died.

Leaden skies hung over the city and the temperature fell below zero. As darkness came it grew colder and many of the 1,200 homeless people began to abandon the church steps, sheltered doorways or alleys where they normally huddled. Driven by warnings of snow, they soon overwhelmed shelters, which had only 650 beds.

At -4 C an emergency shelter plan would have opened an additional 200 floor mats. But it reached only -1.6 that day, leaving Mr. McAllister 2.4 degrees short of salvation -- and out in the cold, struggling to survive another night alone.

His death, one year ago today, brought into focus a homelessness problem that has plagued Greater Vancouver for years, leading to a flurry of studies and calls for more emergency shelters. There are rising fears that when the city plays host to the Winter Olympics in 2010, the blight of homelessness will be on display for the world to see.

Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan recently announced a strategy to crack down on panhandlers and reduce homelessness by at least half by the time the Games start.

But amid all this angst people are forgetting to ask: Who was Francis McAllister and how did he end up dying on Vancouver's streets?

"My life is just addiction," he had said. "Addiction, I believe comes from low self-esteem, and to pull out of it -- that's what you need to work from. I need to quit feeling ashamed of myself and I gotta chase my goals. I know the creator gave me some gifts and I'm just wasting them, wasting them down here."

He wanted to escape Vancouver's streets but kept hitting dead ends.

"There's guys down here that brag -- 'I've been down here for 15 years.' Well, that's nothing to brag about -- I don't think," he said.

"I'm getting to the point where any longer is too late."

Despite his bleak situation (he was broke, HIV-positive, had hepatitis C and was without a home) he dreamed of cutting a CD. One day he walked into a professional recording studio and, with musicians and backing vocalists, laid down a tough, gritty track that knocked everybody out. Frank's Tune reflected his desperate life on the street and his desire to escape it.

"Thirty-seven years and nothing to show/Oh there's gotta be a better way to go," he sang.

In reconstructing Mr. McAllister's difficult life, it becomes clear his death was caused not by the exposure on the street that night, but by a combination of deeper factors. At the root, however, was the homelessness that compromised his health and wore him out.

Homelessness is a national crisis but Vancouver is widely seen as the city with the worst problem because its street people, lining sidewalks and alleys of the Downtown Eastside and now spilling into the business core, are concentrated in a small area and highly visible.

If homelessness in Canada needs a human face, few could be more fitting, or more haunting, than Mr. McAllister's. He was a stubborn, proud, complex man who was crippled by his experiences in foster homes, which he first entered at the age of 3.

"The things that I went through in foster homes, the things I heard, and the things they did -- made me believe that I was no good."

Despite those painful memories he was searching for his roots. The year before he died he was introduced to an aboriginal frame drum, and he learned to chant.

"In my heart I am proud that I am a Cree native," he said. "And it took me a long time to say those words, that I love myself. I'm a good man -- a good guy."

Those who got to know him agreed.

"He wasn't hardcore like a lot of people down here," said a friend, who identified herself as C.J.

"He didn't let the street take away his sense of humour. He always made me laugh. . . . He was sweet."

But he was deeply troubled, as most homeless people are.

And while he failed to take advantage of what social support programs there were, even to the point of rebuffing paramedics as he lay dying, it can also be said that the system repeatedly failed him.

On his last night, Mr. McAllister, 37, with long, jet black hair, a drooping mustache and black beard, lay wrapped in blankets up against a green, chain-link fence near a bottle recycling depot on Hastings Street, in the Downtown Eastside.

He had a strong, soulful voice when he sang, but was often quiet. He battled mental problems, suffered from drug and alcohol abuse and sometimes stole to make ends meet. He frustrated social workers by selling food they gave him, using the money for drugs, and he had been thrown out of small, cheap hotel rooms in the past for using crack on the premises. He knew the rules about drug use, but he said he needed crack to cut through the pain of his life.

The drugs he should have been taking -- antibiotics to stabilize his deteriorating health -- were never given to him because he was homeless and because he couldn't be counted on to keep an appointment at a clinic.

The psychological help he needed was never delivered because he missed doctor's appointments. The mental health outreach team whose help he needed had no home address at which to find him.

The nutritional supplements he so badly needed, to battle a devastating weight loss in his last year, weren't delivered because nurses didn't know where he lived.

Mr. McAllister, who was known as Frank, or Wheels because of the wheelchair he began using as his health failed, was shaking badly on his last night -- not just from the cold, but because of a kidney infection that gave him chills, high fever, and joint and muscle pains. He had a wracking cough from bronchopneumonia, an infection that affects the small airways inside the lungs, making it hard to breathe.

He should have been in hospital that night, not wrapped in blankets on the sidewalk, but he wasn't, in part because as a homeless man he was invisible to the system and in part because in his manic-depressive state, he was refusing help.

At 26 minutes before midnight someone on the street placed a 911 call.

According to a report prepared by the BC Coroners Service an unidentified friend of Mr. McAllister's "advised the ambulance dispatcher that a man in the Unit Block of East Hastings Street was sick, had fever and required assistance."

In Canada's most beautiful city, in a province enjoying a billion-dollar surplus, it is sadly not uncommon to find people sleeping on the streets, even in bad weather. There are more than 1,200 homeless people in Vancouver and last year the Lookout Emergency Aid Society turned away people 5,000 times because its beds were full.

"The paramedics woke this individual and were told by him that he did not need an ambulance. The ambulance crew then left the area," reports Tom Pawlowski, the coroner.

Under B.C.'s Health Act, he could have been apprehended against his will only if a doctor had issued a medical certificate, or a peace officer had sworn a warrant, saying he was a danger to himself.

Mr. McAllister stirred around midnight, the coldest hour, when a friend spoke to him. But according to the coroner he "did not complain of anything at the time, he did seem quieter than usual."

Two hours later a friend noticed that Mr. McAllister "was coughing and did not appear well."

He was dying.

It is impossible to know what thoughts were going through Mr. McAllister's mind in his last hours, there in the darkness of the thin, dirty cocoon of blankets wrapped about him. Perhaps the member of the Beaver Indian band was dreaming of better times, when he was a small boy, playing on the banks of the Eureka River in Alberta's Peace River District. But that was long ago, before his mother died, his family was shattered and he and his six brothers and one sister went into foster homes. That was before he was abused, before he started abusing himself with drugs and alcohol, before he began stealing and ended up in jail, and before he shared a needle that infected him with the AIDS virus. Maybe the words of his song, Frank's Tune, were running through his head.

"I'm just a child that needs to grow/Thirty-seven years and nothing to show."

Whatever he was thinking Mr. McAllister knew he was very sick. He'd known that for a long time. But he'd hoped he could find a home, get off crack, get better. He might have, too, if he hadn't been so proud. He could have gone on antiviral drugs when he was under the treatment of a doctor in prison two years earlier. But he declined because he did not want to be seen in public wearing handcuffs.

Mr. McAllister was sentenced four times for robberies and spent a total of 12 years in jail.

In 2002, after being released from prison in Saskatchewan, he tried to get a new start on life by moving to Vancouver. He knew the weather was better on the West Coast, and he thought he could get into treatment programs for his drug, alcohol and HIV problems.

The Vancouver Native Health Society repeatedly tried to find Mr. McAllister a decent place to live but usually no rooms were available. And when they did find something he failed to show for appointments. Just two weeks before he died he was supposed to attend a meeting that could have resulted in a placement in a social housing project. But he never showed. Doctors at the Native Health Society's medical clinic, two city hospitals and the Downtown Infectious Disease Clinic had the same trouble trying to treat him. He just wouldn't arrive for appointments -- and nobody knew where to find him.

On any given day Doreen Littlejohn, co-ordinator of Positive Outlook, a non-profit group that works with HIV-positive street people, has 30 clients who are homeless and slowly dying, just like Mr. McAllister was last December.

"I have people now who are end-stage AIDS and we have nowhere to put them," she said, her voice tight with emotion.

"Francis was one of them. . . . He shouldn't have died on the street.".

Mr. McAllister had been HIV-positive for 10 years at the time of his death. He had never taken medicine for his HIV or hepatitis C. Blood work was not done regularly, but when it was it often showed an alarming viral load.

Being homeless, unpredictable, and manic-depressive made Mr. McAllister hard to treat. His crack use made things worse.

"He would take drugs and just spiral up into psychosis," said Ms. Littlejohn, recalling how he would sometimes come into the clinic laughing and singing, and other times would be tearing his clothes off and running into the traffic on East Hastings.

His file notes that in April he was "living on the street. Smoking rock . . . contemplating going for treatment. Eats 1 meal a day. Pneumonia . . . not interested in ARV (antiviral drugs) until he gets a place to stay."

May: "Smokes crack as much as he can get."

Mr. McAllister knew his life was spinning downwards, but there was a glimmer of hope.

He joined a music therapy program at the Native Health Centre, and in 2005 sang Frank's Tune for a professionally recorded CD, The Circle of Song.

"That was an amazing program," Ms. Littlejohn said. "He loved that experience. We were worried he wouldn't show up at the [recording] studio, or that he'd come in high, but he was there. And I think that song of his is great."

Jeff Smith, the music therapist who ran the program in 2004 and 2005, said Mr. McAllister used to strum a guitar and sing Frank's Tune at the Native Health Centre drop-in. It became his theme song.

"That song is a personal narrative about his life," Mr. Smith said. "It's a powerful song. It's honest. It's a really well-written tune. It's an amazing track. . . . It would be great to hear Tom Waits cover that."

He said Mr. McAllister's dream was to record an album, and he was watching when Mr. McAllister first heard his song played back.

"It was just a look of almost child-like wonder. A huge beaming smile spread across his face. He looked really proud."

Federal funding for the music therapy program was cut, however, and he never recorded a second tune.

He tried several times to get his life going. He stopped heavy drinking, but couldn't shake crack. He wasn't eating and remained ill. He lost 60 pounds (27 kilograms) in his last year. He got food from the food bank, but when he was seen selling it on the street they cut him off.

He was weak, sick and under mental strain. Staff at the Native Health Centre often noted he was in an "agitated state" or was "acting out," or was "emotionally upset."

Doctors several times prescribed drugs to subdue him. In June of 2004 he was briefly committed.

"He was very manic," Ms. Littlejohn said, reading from the file. "We had him certified. With the mental health system, we call it pinked (because of the colour of the forms), you can have someone taken to hospital for his own safety. It's not an easy thing to do."

But he was soon released.

In September of 2005, a doctor recommended he get psychological counselling. But he refused to visit the mental-health team.

One day he walked into the offices of a native outreach program with paper slippers on bleeding feet. He'd gone to a hospital because of blistered feet -- and they'd discharged him without shoes.

He was infested with lice. The nurses put him in a shower at the clinic. But when he came out he refused the clean clothes they offered, put back on his dirty stuff and returned to the street.

At 8:30 a.m. on Dec. 4, 2005, half an hour after snow started to fall on the city, people sleeping on the sidewalk with Mr. McAllister tried to wake him.

But he was unresponsive that morning and the snow that fell on his still body didn't melt.

An ambulance crew arrived at 8:38 a.m., and a short time later Mr. McAllister was declared dead.

"By what means: Natural disease process," states the coroner's report. Homelessness is not cited as a factor. But arguably it was the root of his death.

His lung and kidney infections were treatable. His HIV was treatable. His mental condition, which may have been what caused him to turn away from the paramedics in a time of dire need, was treatable. But he was homeless, drifting, lost in the streets, and the system couldn't come to grips with him.

The night Francis McAllister died it was as if all of the missed chances, the mistakes, the abuse, and the unusually cold weather converged to overwhelm him.

He fell through the cracks and he fell to his death.

Where the homeless live in the Lower Mainland

Information on the homeless is imprecise

because of the difficulty in counting

people who are on the move and who

often sleep in hidden areas, such as in

stairwells, parks and alleys. A 24-hour

count of the homeless by the Greater

Vancouver Regional District in 2005

indicates there has been a significant

growth in the problem in the past three

years, however. A 'point in time' count

found 2,174 homeless people in March,

2005. In a similar count in 2002 the

GVRD enumerated 1,121 homeless. The

count found homeless in almost every

municipality and district throughout the

region. Some municipalities have done

their own counts, suggesting there are

more than the GVRD estimate, and there

is speculation that for every homeless

person counted, two to three others may

be missed.

Number of homeless found by region*

Bowen Island - 0

West Vancouver - 2

District and city of North Vancouver - 83

Port Moody - 0

Coquitlam - 3

Maple Ridge / Pitt Meadows - 42

Port Coquitlam - 35

Burnaby - 40

Vancouver - 1,291

New Westminster - 92

Surrey - 371

Delta / White Rock - 11

Richmond - 33

Township and city of Langley - 54

*Homeless people found January, 2005, by GVRD Sub-region

SOURCE: SOCIAL PLANNING AND RESEARCH COUNCIL OF BRITISH COLUMBIA

DEAD END STREETS: VANCOUVER'S LOSING STRUGGLE WITH HOMELESSNESS

Series schedule

Today

Two degrees short of salvation: How the streets killed Francis McAllister

Plus, Frank's Tune on globeandmail.com

Tomorrow

An unnatural disaster: Don't blame Vancouver's climate

Wednesday

Suburban sprawl: The homeless outside of the East Side

Thursday

There is a way: A road map out of dead-end streets

Friday

But is there a will? Victoria and city hall react

Follow the series on globeandmail.com, on CKNW radio and on CTV News

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