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Death at 844 Johnson: 'We both knew this building was going to kill him'

In a video shot by his daughter just before Christmas, Jamaal Johnson said it was impossible for him to fight his addictions while living at 844 Johnson. He was right

Jamaal Johnson knew the only way he was leaving 844 Johnson St. was in handcuffs or a body bag.

On Jan. 10, 2023, his premonition came true. The 43-year-old Victoria man collapsed in his bathroom in the social housing residence and could not be revived.

While the B.C. Coroners Service investigates his death, a video of Johnson outside the 147-unit building is circulating on social media.

In the video, shot by his daughter Janai just before Christmas, Johnson says it’s impossible for him to fight his addictions while living in “this death-defying building.”

“These places are not designed for me to get up out of here and out of my struggle,” says Johnson, who also complains about the “filthy” shower facilities.

Johnson’s widow, Courtney, said Jamaal was desperate to be transferred out of the building, which was set up in late 2016 to provide housing for homeless campers moved out of a tent city on the Victoria courthouse grounds. The facility is now operated by the Portland Hotel Society.

Jamaal, who was an alcoholic and a crack-cocaine addict, was devastated when he learned he was going to be transferred there from a temporary shelter created at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre during the COVID-19 pandemic.

So was his wife, who has been “deep in the building,” and compares it to a kill shelter for dogs.

“They’re shoving them in there, giving them all of the sunshine and roses promises and they’re giving them nothing. Jamaal thought he could get better and then he could go home. But walking in, we both had an instant, heavy dark feeling.”

Jamaal Johnson on his wedding day in 2010 with wife Courtney and daughter Janai. FAMILY PHOTO

Jamaal wanted a place where his daughter could visit him safely, a place he could cook ribs for her and watch basketball.

“We both knew this building was going to kill him and it did. I strongly believe that if Jamaal hadn’t been in the building, he’d be alive. One hundred per cent. There’s no doubt in my mind,” Courtney said.

The heroin smoke in the hallways is so intense, it makes you feel dizzy, she said. Support workers reach into their drawers and pass out clean needles or a pipe.

“What’s that doing for anybody? How is that supportive? You’re supporting nothing. People are dying in these places and nobody cares,” said Courtney. “The building is unlike anything you’ve ever encountered in your life. It’s disgusting and deplorable.”

People are living in the hallways, in cubby holes or in someone else’s room, she said.

For years, Victoria police have publicly expressed concerns for vulnerable residents given the level of violent crime at 844 Johnson.

The day Jamaal died, Victoria police officers and members of the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team swept into the building, seizing a loaded handgun and 1.4 kilograms of methamphetamine, fentanyl and cocaine, as well as cash. Three weeks earlier, police found two firearms, two kilograms of drugs and more than $50,000 in cash in the building.

In July, officers found a “cache” of weapons, everything from a loaded handgun to brass knuckles, axes and batons. In 2017, a man was arrested after firing a pellet gun at a woman who was driving by the building.

Nothing deterred Courtney from visiting her husband at the shelter, however.

“I wouldn’t give up on him. If more addicts had someone who loved them unconditionally, maybe they wouldn’t be in such a bad place. Maybe people wouldn’t be so defeated. He was worth it to me. He was my husband and my best friend.. I don’t even know what my life looks like without him,” she said.

‘He was a nerd. He loved to read’

The two met in the Royal Oak neighbourhood when she was 12 and Jamaal was 14. They started dating in 1996, when she was 14. He went to Reynolds Secondary. She went to Claremont.

“I used to call him my Romeo because he would throw rocks at my window at night. He was never a drinker or a pot smoker. He was a nerd. He loved to read. He loved to watch Rap City,” she said with a laugh.

In his late teens, Jamaal started drinking and smoking pot, however, and it caught him right away, said Courtney. He hid his crack-cocaine addiction from her until he was 20.

“He hated his addiction. When he started crack, everything went down. He also started drinking. The two made him a complete monster.”

They had an on-again, off-again relationship soured by his drug and alcohol use. Their daughter was born in 2004. Although Jamaal wanted to be a good father, he kept relapsing.

When he went to jail for drug trafficking in 2008, Courtney moved to Winnipeg. Jamaal eventually followed her, got clean and became a great dad, picking Janai up from kindergarten every day.

“They were best friends and he absolutely was her favourite person.”

Courtney and Jamaal got married in 2010. They were living a good life together with their child. But when they moved back to Victoria in 2018, Jamaal relapsed again.

“I told him: ‘I can’t have this around my child. You’re her hero and you’ve got a crack pipe hanging out of your pocket.’ ”

Family services got involved. Social workers looked at his criminal record, and although Jamaal hadn’t been in jail for 12 years, they banned him from the family home in Langford between the hours of 10 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Jamaal Johnson, 43, from Victoria, hated his addictions to alcohol and crack cocaine. He wanted to get sober but said it was impossible if he continued living in supportive housing at 844 Johnson St. FAMILY PHOTO

Jamaal begged them not to send him away from his daughter, Courtney recalled.

“They were like: ‘Sorry, if you want it bad enough, you’ll go get help.’ ” She shook her head. “An addict and alcoholic not allowed home until 10 p.m. It was such a set-up for disaster. How was anything supposed to get better? He went to detox twice. There were no beds in the treatment centre, so he went back to the street.”

Jamaal started living in a tent city in Centennial Square. During COVID, he was moved to the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre temporary shelter. In 2021, he was transferred to 844 Johnson St.

He was hospitalized several times for drug overdoses, which took a toll on his body and his mind. The first time, Courtney found him slumped inside his tent in Centennial Square, his lips blue.

Jamaal thought he had taken crack cocaine, but it was heroin laced with benzodiazepine. He was unresponsive for 15 minutes. The overdose caused significant damage to his heart, said Courtney.

He had two overdoses at 844 Johnson, each requiring more and more Narcan to revive him. “He was never the same,” Courtney said.

On the day he died, other residents noticed that Jamaal looked grey. He was distraught and wringing his hands. He was found lying on his bathroom floor in the fetal position. Courtney, who talked to the coroner, believes he died from heart failure.

‘He’s dying in this building. What more do you need?’

A variety of services are supposed to be available at 844 Johnson St.

Staffing at the building includes four mental-health workers onsite 24 hours a day, says Micheal Vonn, chief executive officer for PHS Community Services Society, which runs the facility. Two maintenance workers, two home-support workers and two managers work 40 hours a week. A commercial kitchen provides two meals a day, seven days a week.

Cool Aid’s medical clinic provides 24 hours a week of nursing and physician time. An Indigenous outreach worker is there 24 hours a week and a pharmacy is open four hours every day.

Island Health clinical teams — the Assertive Community Action Team, Integrated Case Management, Crisis Management and Health and Housing — help residents who need health supports. Island Health also funds overdose-prevention services onsite.

It’s not clear why Jamaal didn’t get the help he needed to move into a better housing situation.

Courtney Johnson, left, and daughter Janai Johnson, 18, right in front of Our Place Society after a memorial for Jamaal Johnson, who died of a drug overdose Jan 10. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

In an email, Vonn said she cannot release any personal information about any resident under statutory privacy obligations. However, Vonn said PHS supports any residents seeking to move to any other housing for any reason.

“This includes making referrals and assisting with applications. Residents do not always qualify for the residence they are applying for,” she wrote.

A few hours after Jamaal’s memorial service Friday at Our Place, however, Courtney said PHS ignored her husband’s cries for help.

“He was really passionate about getting the hell out of that building. He would talk to anyone who would listen about getting out and becoming better for his family,” she said.

“[PHS] said he had to hit three of the categories for us to put him in for a transfer. I asked: ‘Why are you not transferring this man? He’s dying in this building. What more do you need?’

“Oh now, he’s dead. Funny how that works, eh?”