City shaken as homeless woman burns to death in shopping cart

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 December, 2008, 12:00am


Vancouver enjoys Canada's mildest climate, in a country known for ice and cold. Thanks to geographic good fortune, snow is rare, attracting homeless people from around the country who can usually sleep in relative comfort - relative to the frigid pavements elsewhere.

But this month has been different, and the results have been tragic.

As Vancouver temperatures dipped below minus 13 degrees Celsius and snowdrifts piled up, the major concern for most residents was the icy pavements and the inconvenience of fitting snow tyres. But such concerns were thrown into stark perspective by a death downtown that shocked the city.

A 47-year-old homeless woman, known only as Tracey, burned to death as she tried to stay warm in the shopping cart that served as her shelter. The blaze on a busy street corner was reported at about 4.30am by a taxi passenger.

Other witnesses from a coffee shop and 24-hour store dismissed the fire as someone burning rubbish.

Vancouver police say they have since been more vigilant about checking on the homeless, making extra effort to find shelter beds for those willing to come in from the cold.

Spokeswoman Jana McGuinness said officers checked on Tracey three times the night she died, the last time four hours before the fire.

Officers and outreach workers, including some at a church a few blocks away, tried to get Tracey to accept a bed in a shelter - but under current laws, no one can be forced to take shelter except in the most extreme situations.

Tracey apparently refused to go inside because none of the shelters would allow her to bring her shopping cart. The cart contained all her meagre possessions.

Before she died, church volunteers gave Tracey a quilt, jacket and hot drink - but declined to give her a candle because of safety concerns.

The death was not an isolated incident. Last January, homeless man Darrell Mickasko died when the portable stove he had been using to stay warm in an alleyway exploded. A woman with him was severely burned.

And the church volunteers' caution was to no avail.

The last police officer to speak to Tracey gave her a cigarette and lighter for a candle, said Constable McGuinness.

Housing advocate Judy Graves says more shelters are opening and construction crews have doubled their effort to get the facilities ready.

'We've been working so hard to get more shelters opened. One is opening within a week that will accept shopping carts and dogs,' said Ms Graves.

She said Tracey's death could have been prevented. 'We were just a few days too late.'

Tomorrow: New York