The woods behind the La Ronge Health Centre are deceptively isolating.
Walking into the bush through the knee-deep snow, the town quickly disappears, swallowed up behind the trees.
In the summer, this is a gathering place for the local homeless community. People come here to meet up, to drink, to pitch tents and sleep. Sticking together, they can watch each other’s backs and stay safe.
In winter, people still come out here — but not as many, and not for as long — not if they have any other options.
On Nov. 16, 2022, Carla Thomas was out of options.
That night, as temperatures dropped below -10 C and snow swept over La Ronge, the 48-year-old froze to death in the woods.
Carla’s partner Victor found her by the firepit.
“He picked her up and took her to the hospital,” said Martha Charles, Victor’s niece. “But she wasn’t responding.”
Now, her friends are mourning the loss of a kind, vibrant, funny woman.
They say her death was more than a tragedy: It was utterly preventable, foreseeable — and forewarned.
And they wonder: if nothing changes, how many more will die?
‘SUCH A GOOD PERSON’
In the months since Carla’s funeral, the homeless community in La Ronge has kept her memory alive.
“Carla was one of those people that, every time I saw her, she’d give me a big hug,” recalled Franklin Clark, smiling at the memory. “That’s what she did.”
Her friends paint a picture of a woman who was struggling — sometimes, badly struggling. But her deep caring for others is remembered most.
“She was such a good person,” said Olivia Lariviere. “She was a kind person. Like us, alcoholics. But she’d never argue. She’d never fight — nothing. Whenever she had something, she shared. She was good.”
Vern Keeper also recalls her unwavering generosity.
“I remember her being very friendly and very polite — always wanting to help people,” Keeper said. “If someone was hungry, she’d help get some food for them. If she had food on her, she’d give it to someone who needed it, even if she didn’t have enough”
Carla was also in love.
She and Victor were well-known in the community. They were always together, people said, and brought out the best in one another. Victor’s last name could not be confirmed.
“They were perfect for each other,” said Martha Charles. “They were happy together.”
Charles said she had come to think of Carla as an auntie — and soon, that was going to be official.
“They were going to get married,” she said through tears. “I was supposed to be one of the bridesmaids.”
But even as Carla and Victor were dreaming of a future together, they were trying to make it through the winter with no stable shelter.
Victor had been banned from the Scattered Site Outreach Program, which has a zero-tolerance policy for any acts of violence within the building. The ban includes access to the overnight shelter.
Carla — who was allowed to access the programs — would go in for meals, fixing a plate for herself and usually taking one for Victor, as well.
But she wouldn’t stay.
LAST DAY AND NIGHT
Franklin Clark saw Carla the day before she died.
He was worried because she had been drinking more than usual, so he stopped to check on her.
“I said, ‘Hey, man, just take care of yourself,’ ” Clark recalled. “‘I can’t go with you. I’ve got things to do.’ “
She told him she would be OK.
Later, he wasn’t surprised to hear that Carla had made camp behind the hospital, where she and Victor often spent their nights.
“I’d visited over there a few times,” Clark said. “I drank with them a few times. But this time it was winter. That’s the bad part.”
Martha Charles said she was in Hall Lake that day, but she couldn’t stop thinking about her uncle Victor and auntie Carla in La Ronge.
“I just had a bad feeling in my chest and in my mind,” she said. “Like something happened. And then I heard about it. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. I had to wait for a week before I could come over here (to La Ronge), and then I heard the same thing. And it hurts.”
‘LIKE AN OMEN’
Days before Carla’s death, Scattered Site’s extended hours manager, Tina Johnson, told a StarPhoenix reporter about the dangerous lack of shelter and services for homeless people in La Ronge.
She said the number of locals needing shelter and food had skyrocketed in the last few years, while organizations were fighting tooth and nail to keep their doors open.
Scattered Site’s overnight shelter — a last line of defence against the northern winter — is constantly over capacity.
Detox beds are in short supply, with months-long wait times for people seeking treatment.
The community has a longstanding housing shortage, so people who have fallen off the housing ladder face near-insurmountable hurdles trying to get back into a place of their own.
Johnson knew disaster was inevitable, and was sounding the alarm.
“I am terrified that I’m going to come to work and find out that one of my friends has died,” she said on Nov. 9. “I am terrified that I am going to find out they had nowhere to go, and they froze.”
One week later, Carla Thomas was dead.
Johnson said she was devastated by the news — especially in light of that previous conversation.
“It was like an omen,” she said.
Since then, the situation has grown worse.
By the end of November, the shelter had served 128 clients since it opened its doors for the winter. As of Jan. 11, that number had climbed to 150.
Only 20 beds are available per night.
“It’s pretty scary,” Johnson said. “We have a maximum number of people that we’re allowed to let sleep — just for the fire codes. As much as I wish we could just stack ’em like cordwood in the corners and fit everybody in here, unfortunately, we can’t.”
Vern Keeper said he’s grateful La Ronge has a winter shelter — but when he heard that Carla had died, it was hard not to be angry at the patchwork system of safety nets and stopgaps that failed his friend.
“Thank God they made up a shelter, or more people would have died from the cold-ass weather we’ve got here,” Keeper said. “But what’s the point of having these shelters if people are still going to freeze, you know?
“We need more housing. More help with substance abuse. People try their best — but it’s hard.”
Johnson said Scattered Site needs a much bigger space to protect the growing number of people who need help. More low-income, subsidized and supportive housing is desperately needed, too.
“The main thing is, we need more resources — more accessible resources,” she said. “Even this last week, we had to turn people away because we just didn’t have room. I got a phone call from one of my staff at 10 p.m. asking ‘What do we do?’ We were already at max capacity, and it’s not even time to close the doors yet.
“We are very thankful that we have the space that we do have, but it’s not enough.”
With frigid months ahead, the danger remains. People still have no choice but to sleep rough, even on the coldest nights, and risk freezing to death, Johnson said.
“It’s something we worry about every day.”
‘WHAT IF IT HAPPENS TO ME?’
When Franklin Clark thinks about his last conversation with Carla, he wonders how that day could have gone differently. If he had gone with her, or said something else, would she still be alive today?
“I try to look after everybody,” Clark said. “Maybe that’s why God keeps me around. Because I could have died, a lot of times, and I’ve got a lot of scars to prove it.
“I’m just so sorry I couldn’t be there for her. But maybe I can be there for somebody else.”
Clark said Carla — like him — would drink to cope with experiences of pain and hardship. For a while, it’s a way to forget, or numb the feelings.
Years on the street only compound the trauma.
“Judgmental people look down on us and hurt us more, and they push us to that point,” he said. “To Carla’s point. And I’m probably going to end up that way.”
Martha Charles said Carla’s death was frighteningly predictable. With no stable housing and not enough shelter beds to go around, it could have happened to anyone in the homeless community.
“Accidents do happen,” she said. “What if it happens to me? What if I end up out there alone?”
For Charles, talking about Carla is still emotional. She should have had a wedding, not a funeral.
She says La Ronge will never forget her auntie. Even the very woods where she died seem to remember her.
“There’s a little cross out there where she passed, that grew from the ground,” Charles said.
When there was nowhere else to go, these woods sheltered Carla Thomas many times over the years — until the night they couldn’t save her life.
Now, they memorialize her.
By Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Jan 26, 2023 at 11:11