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OPINION: Rick the Mayor brought homelessness into focus

Reporter Kevin Lamb, who says he was hit hard by the death of a Barrie homeless man, has questions he wants answered

It’s been an eye-opening month or so covering some of the struggles of homeless residents in our city.

From speaking with the shed dwellers on Victoria Street, who are eking out a life in their ramshackle plywood and tarp homes, to the untimely death last Saturday of their “mayor,” Rick Chenery, the 75-year-old grizzled veteran of Barrie’s homeless community, the despair they face has come into sharp focus.

I’ve since found out that Rick was found dead in his shack at the side of the street on the other side of a snowbank.

His buddy and “roommate," 53-year-old Brad, discovered his friend's lifeless body on Feb. 17 in their home, if you can call it that.

At one point a few weeks back, it looked like Rick and Brad’s living arrangements were on the way to improving, if only marginally.

There was an offer of some land to use free of charge, along with a better shelter, by a homeowner in Innisfil.

A local business owner also contacted me around the same time with an offer of a large new tarp to replace the one they had, which was full of holes and letting rainwater in.

Brad, 53, stands outside a homemade shed home on Victoria Street in Barrie which he shared with Rick Chenery, who was known among the local homeless community as "The Mayor." Chenery died last week at the age of 75. | Kevin Lamb/BarrieToday

The generous man, who did not want to be named, dropped it off to them a short time later.

With my stories about them filed and published, I hadn't had a chance to reach out to the duo again. 

However, this past Sunday, I received an email out of the blue from a member of a church notifying me of Rick’s untimely passing.

It hit me hard, although I wasn’t terribly surprised, really. With a 75-year-old stuck outside in the elements all winter, what chance did he have?

His living space was incredibly unsanitary, along with the constant inhalation of smoke from their small campfire they built inside their tarp-covered shelter to try to stay warm. It certainly wasn’t ideal.

It took me a couple of days to find Brad, as he had left their shed for a couple of nights after Rick’s death.

When he returned on Tuesday, I found him sitting by his indoor campfire.

We chatted for a while about Rick and what may happen next.

Brad told me how Rick had been suffering with a severe toothache and a headache for a couple of days prior to his death. He didn’t seek help.

It’s a well-known fact that an abscessed tooth can become a serious problem, with the infection entering the bloodstream, leading to sepsis, which can be fatal.

Although, without a coroner’s confirmation, there's no way to tell what caused Rick's demise.

I’m told his body, now with a coroner's office in Toronto, will be claimed by a local church if a family member isn’t found. The church plans to bring him to Barrie for a service and burial, if they are able to.

Meanwhile, Brad says he’s going to remain there at the shed he shared with Rick. It originally belonged to Rick and he had asked Brad to join him, so he did.

Is this the end of the story of Rick the Mayor? As far as I’m concerned, it's not.

I hope to find out what the cause of his death was, and if it was preventable, so the same story doesn’t repeat itself with someone else in the same dire situation.

If a tooth infection followed by sepsis turns out to be the reason, what can be done to mitigate the risk in homeless populations?

And what happens to someone who goes unclaimed by their family after they die?

What happens to any assets they may have, including any money in a bank account?

These are questions I don’t have answers to yet, and I would very much like to find out.