Frontline workers, street community members, their friends and families say two recent deaths highlight a series of tragedies that have shaken the Victoria street community.
Drug overdoses and homelessness take a constant toll, said Rev. Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society.
“We continue to bury one or two people a week,” said Tysick, who delivers coffee, breakfast and supplies to at least 80 of the city’s transient homeless every morning.
He said that while heroin overdoses have been a recent concern, most people die of causes common to the general population — only they are younger and tend to have multiple health issues. “It boils down to people aren’t getting the shelter, food or care they need.”
This week, mourners gathered inside Our Place to celebrate the life of a young woman. Just a few blocks away, a memorial grew for a homeless man known as the Captain.
Jessica (JJ) Underdown died Aug. 17 at age 37. Fresh out of treatment for drug addiction, Underdown was proud to have an apartment, but was a bit lonely without her partner Sunny, who is in jail. Her father, Jerry Underdown, said she died alone at home, likely from a heroin overdose, though the coroners service has not yet confirmed the cause of death. She also had pneumonia.
Victoria police said heroin and cocaine are the two most prevalent drugs on the streets related to overdoses. Coroner Barb McLintock said there seems to be more heroin on the streets lately, but does not yet have the toxicology reports to support any firm statistics.
“I saw her a few days before she died,” said Underdown’s father, who adopted Jessica as a toddler. He and his wife had three biological and six adopted children, as well as several foster children. “We sat outside Our Place and talked about family, her daughter. … I thought she looked pretty good.”
Nearly 100 members of Underdown’s biological, adopted, foster and street community families shared stories and prayers at her memorial, along with friends, support workers and fellow First Nations.
“She always had something positive to say and was welcoming to me,” said her partner’s son, Gregory. “My father loves her very much, and she loved him, too.”
“She was beautiful to look at and be with, always respectful and courteous,” said outreach worker Sandy Bell.
Underdown was born in Lillooet and attended Pacific Christian School after her family moved to Victoria. She struggled with fetal alcohol syndrome and “not recognizing danger,” said her father.
She was 18 when she gave birth to a daughter who was later adopted and travelled to be at her memorial this week.
Her father said that when he last saw Underdown, he went to give her the family “happy cup,” a coffee cup filled with change. “The cup was surprisingly empty. I’d just given it to a granddaughter,” he told the crowd as he explained the family tradition, which dates to Jessica’s childhood. He then passed the empty cup around to raise funds for Our Place. The collection brought in $484, a cigarette, a bus ticket and a small feather, he said later.
At the Rock Bay Landing shelter, friends and workers mourned the death of resident Joseph Viateur Jean-Luc Lavoie — also known as the Chairman, Captain or Pirate of Pandora for his distinct brown pirate hat, thick French-Canadian accent and jolly demeanour at his daily perch under a tree in the 500 block of Pandora Avenue, between Government Street and Store Street.
“Jean-Luc was an important and irreplaceable member of our community, and he will be missed,” said Emma Cochrane, from the Victoria Cool-Aid Society. Lavoie died at the shelter on Aug. 29.
The cause of death has not been confirmed, but the 62-year-old had several health issues.
“I believe that many at Rock Bay Landing have a heartwarming Jean-Luc memory to hang onto, as he made an impact on all of us there,” Cochrane said.
Victoria resident Rachel Perkins often passed Lavoie at his Pandora Avenue spot. “He never asked for money, so occasionally, I’d give him some,” she said. “[He was] always very respectful and kind. Made me smile,” she said.