Josh Derrah, 28, died on Dec. 20 alone, in the cold, outside of the A&W restaurant leaving his partner Gina Dias, friends, and an estranged five-year-old daughter behind.
The RCMP said Derrah, who often went by J.D., died from a suspected drug overdose. Members of the community believe the recent cold temperatures and lack of suitable warming shelters also played a role.
“With no services at night or security to check on them they are left to die on the streets at night,” said Duncan merchant Will Arnold, who, in addition to running a long-time business located along the Duncan corridor, regularly checks in on and interacts with the area’s homeless population.
The night Derrah died, temperatures dipped below freezing. It felt like -6 C with the windchill, according to Environment Canada.
Dias had gone to warm up but Derrah stayed behind. When she returned, he was dead.
No warming shelter was open at the time.
“With the current and drastic temperatures that Canada is experiencing, the North Cowichan/Duncan RCMP is working very closely with the Cowichan Valley Regional District and the warming shelters that are being set up to assist those who are in need,” said the RCMP in a release.
The reality is, according to Duncan’s mayor, it’s just not that easy and even when things seem to be on track, sometimes plans fall apart.
Mayor Michelle Staples said the emergency cold weather shelter was supposed to open on Dec. 18 but there were last-minute staffing issues forcing a delay.
“People were sick. They just didn’t have enough people,” she said. “So then we regrouped and went through emergency services through the regional district.”
With the help of volunteers and organizations who stepped up in a pinch, a shelter was able to open the night of Derrah’s death, but with space for just 30 people.
Staples said finding a location for a shelter has been challenging.
“There’s been a group of people trying to find a location since last spring,” she said, adding this year they were able to find a location last minute but then the staffing issues popped up.
“We’re not used to sickness putting people out like this,” she said. “These are really circumstances beyond anyone’s control.”
While it’s an issue that she admits keeps her up at night, Staples said things would be a lot worse if not for the Cowichan community.
“We do have an amazing community that really rallies around and tries to find solutions,” she said.
BC Coroners Service spokesperson Ryan Panton confirmed their office is investigating a sudden death in the same area at the same time as Derrah’s but was unable confirm any details as their file is still open.