Jamie Langille, 43, is facing a long recovery at the Saint John Regional Hospital after having his left leg amputated below the knee and half his right foot amputated because of frostbite. (Catherine Driscoll)
Less than three weeks after a homeless Saint John man lost his life in a tent fire, another is in hospital after losing his left leg below the knee and half of his right foot to severe frostbite.
Jamie Langille, 43, who has lived in a tent in a wooded area uptown for about three years, said he fell asleep one night with wet feet.
"I usually light a fire at nighttime," he said, explaining he burns candles and hand sanitizer in a bucket to get warm. "And I thaw my whole body out. But that night, I fell asleep."
His feet froze, Langille said, and he developed gangrene, the death of body tissue.
A CAT scan confirmed the extent of the damage and doctors broke the news that he needed immediate amputations.
"I don't know how to deal with it right now," Langille, who underwent the surgeries on Jan. 19, said from his hospital bed.
"It's weird going from being able to walk and run around and do whatever with your two legs, and then now, I only have one leg and half of a foot. And I just don't know what lies ahead.
"I'm already homeless. I don't have a clue what to do.
"My mind's racing everywheres and I just … It's a difficult time."
Infuriated, Catherine Driscoll, a volunteer with Street Team SJ, which provides food and supplies to the homeless, got Langille's permission to post graphic before and after in-hospital photos.
'We can't waste anymore time'
The photos showed Langille's blackened, cold-ravaged feet and the white-bandaged stumps left behind.
"This is the ongoing reality of the unhoused community," she wrote on Facebook, referring to Langille's amputations and the Jan. 7 death of Evan McArthur, 44, following a fire at a homeless encampment in the north end.
"We can't waste anymore time. Nobody should lose their limb or their life in order to have the basic necessity of a home."
Driscoll, who has checked on Langille weekly for the past year and used to check on McArthur, also sent a longer email to Premier Blaine Higgs, Saint John MP Wayne Long, local MLAs Arlene Dunn, Trevor Holder and Dorothy Shephard, Mayor Donna Reardon and city councillors. She thanked those who have been actively working toward a solution and urged them to continue to push forward.
"Time is not on our side," she wrote.
Catherine Driscoll, a Street Team SJ volunteer, said solutions for the homeless 'always come down to funding,' and the three levels of government need to work collaboratively to create real change. (Catherine Driscoll)
"And since money talks (especially to Premier Higgs ..) how much do you think this hospital stay will cost from admission to discharge."
Langille is now wheelchair-dependent, she said.
"That money could have been funnelled into a solution. We need to start focusing on an upstream-thinking approach. This should not be happening."
Higgs's office did not respond to a request Thursday for comments.
"The fact that there has been nothing from him, I think speaks volumes about his priorities," Driscoll told CBC News, noting Higgs lives in Quispamsis, just outside Saint John, where "this is all happening."
"I really hope that he can take a look at the human side of things and realize that there is more to running the province than whatever he's doing; that you really have to bring it down to the humans that are part of this province and that he's supposed to be caring for."
The Department of Social Development declined to comment on Langille's case Friday. "Due to strict legal obligations, the Department of Social Development cannot speak about specific cases," spokesperson Rebecca Howland said in an email.
"Outreach workers, like the team from Fresh Start and other service providers, constantly work to ensure unhoused people are offered the right services that meet their needs, including any housing programs they may be eligible for through Housing NB," she added.
'We can't just keep talking about it'
After McArthur's death "rocked" the community and prompted talks with politicians, Driscoll felt cautiously optimistic that changes were coming.
"It just felt like the ball was rolling finally. And then this happened."
Driscoll decided to post and email about Langille, not to exploit his situation, but to "keep building on that momentum" and to raise awareness.
How much more suffering do we have to witness and see them experience before change will actually happen? - Catherine Driscoll, Street Team SJ volunteer
"Action actually has to take place. We can't just keep talking about it," she said. "We really need to get solutions and get something up and running sooner rather than later.
"Like, how much more suffering do we have to witness and see them experience before change will actually happen?"
She included the photos, she said, because "something needs to wake somebody up in order to take this seriously."
"I think thinking 'frostbite' is one thing. Seeing the pictures and seeing the reality is a whole other."
Frostbite is not uncommon among the homeless, she said, but Langille's is the worst case she has ever seen.
"It's incredibly sad and frustrating."
'It should never have come to this'
"It should never have come to this," she said, noting Langille has been on the wait list for housing for a long time and started having problems with his left foot last winter, when he had to have some frostbitten toes amputated.
This December, he was admitted to hospital with more problems with his left foot, given antibiotics and discharged.
Langille said he was scheduled to try using a wheelchair for the first time Friday and hopes to eventually be fitted for prosthetics. (Catherine Driscoll)
The next time Driscoll and another volunteer stopped by his tent, Langille declined to come out and said he didn't need anything. "I thought, 'That's not like him.' I said, 'Are you OK?' And he said, 'No, I'm in a lot of pain. I can't walk.'"
Half of his left foot was black and the skin on his right foot seemed "mushy."
They did some first aid, wrapped his feet in clean bandages and gave him some dry socks, foot warmers and a pair of boots a size too big so his bandaged feet would fit in them. But within a week or two, the damage progressed so quickly and was so extensive, amputation was the only option, she said.
A call for empathy
Langille said he faces up to a month of recovery and rehab in hospital, including learning to use a wheelchair, and hopefully being fitted for prosthetics.
He's speaking out, he said, because he doesn't want anyone else to have to go through what he's going through, or to die, like his friend McArthur.
He thinks governments need to put more money into housing and services for the homeless, such as daytime warming centres, where they can go while shelters are closed between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., and programs "to help them better themselves."
"I don't think they take it serious enough," he said.
"I think they think it's just a big drug epidemic and people are just on drugs and stuff, but people are homeless without being on drugs."
"A lot of people are just down on their luck."
Driscoll agrees. "Everybody has a story," she said, urging people to be kind and empathetic.
'Very next' on housing list
Langille worked as a journeyman scaffolder from around 2006-07 until 2019, when he retired, she said. His pension was "very low," so he lived with his mother, but then she got cancer and died in July 2021. His grandmother died a few months later and the rest of his family seemed to go their separate ways, he said.
He got on the By Names List, which matches people who experience chronic homelessness with available housing, but "it takes forever to get placed, I guess."
According to Driscoll, single men are considered lower priority.
"Now my [social] worker tells me that I'm the very next person on the list," Langille said.
If he has to go back to his tent, he doesn't know what he'll do, he said. "I hope that's not the case."
For now he's trying to just "take it day by day," and focusing on his recovery.