Montreal 74-year-old who froze to death this week lived for years in solitary camp in NDG woods

The man who died of hypothermia in Montreal's NDG neighbourhood Monday evening had lived in the same spot, outdoors, for about a decade, says one of his neighbours.

The man’s name was Michael, said John Symon, who met him at his cave-like structure in the wooded escarpment called Falaise St-Jacques.

Calling Michael “homeless” is technically true, in the sense that he had no house. But the 74-year-old staunchly told people he had picked the spot for his home.

“He said to me he’d made a lifestyle choice to live in the makeshift shelter,” Symon said.

Why had he made that choice? It wasn’t clear. But until COVID-19 hit and the range of options for the homeless changed, Michael’s routine had worked for him through years of Montreal cold snaps.

“He used to spend the nights at McDonald’s when it was really cold,” said Symon, recalling that Michael told him he used to sleep during the day in the winter and stay alert at night.

“McDonald’s was almost across the street from him, and a few years ago it was a 24-hour restaurant,” he said.

“I don’t think the staff would really care two hoots if someone sat in there all night reading a book.”

All McDonald’s locations, like all of Quebec’s eateries, were ordered to close their dining rooms and only offer takeout under the province’s current lockdown, which started Dec. 31.

“There also used to be a bowling alley that was open 24 hours pretty close by,” Symon added, but, like many other warm, public spaces, it closed as well.

Michael died sometime late Monday or early Tuesday. Officers responded to a call about a man showing signs of hypothermia. He was taken to hospital but it was too late to save him.

In the wee hours of Tuesday morning it was about -23 Celsius, with a wind chill of about -32C.

Michael’s full name hasn’t been released, with the coroner’s officer saying it doesn’t publicly release the full names of people whose deaths they’re studying until the family has been notified. In this case, it’s unclear who Michael’s surviving family is, or if he had any.

Regardless, he made an impression on people who met him, like Symon, even if it only lasted for a few minutes.

“I'm sad. It seems like the whole thing could have been so avoidable,” said Symon.

He’s part of the group Save the Falaise, which has been lobbying to protect the three-kilometre green strip between Rue St-Jacques and Highway 20, which in English is called the St-Jacques Escarpment.

A dozen members of the group met at the western end of the escarpment about four or five years ago to discuss where to create a new walking trail, Symon said. They could see Michael’s camp just up the hill, so Symon and his wife walked up to say hi.

The encounter with the white-haired man wasn’t exactly what he expected, he said.

“I was quite impressed with how articulate he was, and he seemed very calm and comfortable with his setting,” he recalled.

“He seemed healthy and well-groomed… he didn't ask for money or anything like that. He was quite welcoming when we went over and spoke to him,” Symon said.

“He exuded the personality of someone who's happy to see people come over to their house.”

Michael was living in a hand-made shelter, building himself partly into the land around him.

“The embankment of the St-Jacques Falaise, it's quite loose,” said Symon. “I think he dug into the ground quite a ways, made almost a cave, and then you had sticks and tarps and all kinds of stuff on the outside.”

When he got a sideways look inside, he saw some “pretty good” camping gear.

While media reports described the setting as a camp or encampment, it wasn’t anything like the tent city that sprang up the last two years in the east end. Michael was alone there, Symon said.

“He could look out onto Highway 20... but right close-by, he’s all surrounded by trees,” he said.

“I remember he put up bird feeders around his camp. I guess for a homeless person that's quite a luxury.”

He remembered Michael saying “that he’d made a lifestyle choice and this is what he wanted to do.”

Authorities do appear to have checked on Michael’s welfare over the years. Symon, who has lived in the area for 27 years and believed Michael had been there for at least a decade, said he’d seen police visiting his camp, though not in the sense of a raid—they left it intact.

A Montreal police spokesperson said he didn’t have access to more details about the man, such as his full name, because his death wasn’t considered criminal and there was no file on it. Another officer told French-language media this week said she’d known him.

Staff at the St-Jacques McDonald’s and the Quilles-G bowling alley down the street couldn’t be reached.

The only other information Symon had about the man was that he was a native English-speaker and gave the impression of being from the area, so he may spent more of his life in and around NDG.

The Quebec coroner’s office told CTV that it’s possible they’ll be able to release his name later, suggesting they were searching this week for Michael’s family, or that his family hadn’t consented to having his name released.

Coroners “systematically” investigate any violent or unexpected deaths, including those following “negligence,” according to spokesperson Jake Lamotta Granato. They also look into all deaths where the deceased’s family is unknown.

“The Coroner's Office only releases the identity of a deceased person when a family has been notified of the death and that family consents to the identity being released,” he said. “I'll get back to you in case we can release the identity.”

If no one claims Michael’s body, it will be buried in a small Montreal graveyard reserved for people who die homeless and unattached to family.

There is a cemetery area for unclaimed bodies, said people working in the city’s social services. It’s run by the city but overseen by the Maison du Père, a men’s shelter near Berri-UQAM metro.

The Maison du Père handles the burials and conducts a simple ceremony for anyone who dies without a permanent address and has no one else to organize their funeral.

Michael seemed to avoid homeless shelters. In fact, Symon said, he had a cellphone—he gave them the number—and also had enough cash on hand to buy bird feed.

“I’m curious, if he had some money, why didn't he go stay at a motel or something when it was really, really cold?” Symon said.

But even if Michael chose the parameters of his own life, his death made it hit home for Symon how many people, especially those living on the fringes of society, could, like him, “be considered a COVID casualty,” he said.

“Every day you see the COVID statistics in the media, how many people are hospitalized, how many in ICUs, how many dead,” Symon said.

“That’s probably just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “He won't show up in the statistics.”

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