A Vancouver woman is calling for the recall and redesign of clothing donation bins commonly found street-side after seeing a woman who got stuck in one and died.
Saskia Wolsak was awoken at around 4 a.m. on Monday to the sounds of a man shouting for help outside a community centre on the city’s west side. She and a few neighbours went outside to find a woman with her upper body stuck in a donation bin, her lower torso and legs hanging out. The woman was unresponsive.
“She wasn’t answering when people spoke to her and it was hard to know what was happening, and if it was possible that she was still alive,” Ms. Wolsak said.
“The neighbours considered trying to pull her out, but one man was very clear, saying it’s just not possible because of how the door was designed. In addition, there was concern about moving someone who was injured and unresponsive.”
The residents called 911 and firefighters cut through a front panel and padlock to get the woman out.
The woman’s partner of eight years, whom Ms. Wolsak said appeared destitute, could not bear to watch, and turned a corner, in tears. Ms. Wolsak, a PhD student who had worked as a counsellor and doula, followed and sat with him.
“We just sat and talked,” she said. “He was really open. Every now and then he would start crying, or he would say, ‘I don’t know how to get a hold of her mother. I don’t speak Russian; how am I going to get a hold of her?’”
Vancouver police confirmed the 39-year-old woman died at the scene. Police determined the death was not a crime and the file was turned over to the B.C. Coroners Service.
Jonathan Gormick, spokesman for Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services, said such deaths show the desperate circumstances of many marginalized people.
“I’ve heard a lot of comment on the issue, and a lot of people saying they made a conscious choice and paid a price,” he said. “I think that’s a really myopic, unsympathetic view of the situation. I don’t think the person made a conscious choice; I think they were so desperate that they did what they had to do. It’s a tragedy.”
Captain Gormick encouraged engineers to design a bin that shields donated items from the elements while deterring human entry – “but I think the greater problem is the level of desperation in our most marginalized population.”
Ms. Wolsak contacted media after the incident saying the bins should be recalled and redesigned. She said she was pleased there has been discussion and awareness of the issue.
“People have died across Canada, and also in the United States, in seemingly similar ways,” she said. “This is a design flaw. Clearly, it’s a magnet for people in need. They’re functioning as traps, in a way, and they’re hurting people."
Advocates for the impoverished have raised the same concerns after similar incidents. They include the deaths of an unidentified man in a clothing donation bin at a Calgary shopping mall in July, 2017; Tyler Laplante, 20, near Surrey’s Guildford Town Centre in August, 2016; and Salvation Army worker Anita Hauck, in Pitt Meadows, B.C., in September, 2015.
The bin involved in Monday’s death belongs to the Developmental Disabilities Association, a non-profit that provides community-based programs and services. The group said on Tuesday that the bin has been removed, but that about 150 others of that style remain throughout the Lower Mainland, Squamish and the Fraser Valley.
“We are currently in the midst of connecting with other non-profits across Canada and want to be part of a solution to prevent these incidents from occurring,” the association said in a statement.