London

1 year after daughter's death in London tent fire, parents say year-round crash beds can save lives

One year after losing their daughter following a tent fire in London, Ont., Stephanie and Sean Clark say the agencies that support those living on the streets need funding throughout the year so that shelter is available to everyone.  

Olivia Clark, 31, died on April 15, 2023 after a makeshift tent she and a friend were sleeping in caught fire

Olivia Clark, 31, died of her injuries on April 15, 2023 after the makeshift tent she and a friend were sleeping in, caught fire and burned half her body. One year later, her parents and loved ones organized a memorial outside the Ark Aid Mission building on 696 Dundas Street in London.
Olivia Clark, 31, died on April 15, 2023, after the makeshift tent she and a friend were sleeping in, caught fire and burned half her body. One year later, her parents and loved ones organized a memorial outside the Ark Aid Mission building on 696 Dundas Street in London. (Submitted/Isha Bhargava/CBC)

One year after losing their daughter following a tent fire in London, Ont., Stephanie and Sean Clark say the agencies that support those living on the streets need continuous funding throughout the year so that shelter is available to anyone who needs it. 

Olivia Clark, 31, was sleeping in a tent with a friend on the sidewalk in front of the Ark Aid Mission on Dundas Street when a fire they were burning to keep warm got out of hand. She suffered severe burns and was in a coma before she died in a Toronto hospital on April 15, 2023.

If more overnight crash beds were available, Olivia's mom Stephanie Clark said, the fire probably wouldn't have happened and she would still be alive.

"We've heard people say, 'Why don't people get off the streets using shelters?' and in Olivia's case, she was using the shelter as her nightly bed while they were available, but in this situation, they just didn't have beds," she said. 

"In order for people to receive food and adequate care, facilities like Ark Aid still need funding. It's not just a matter of a quick fix like getting beds or implementing the housing hubs, there's more to it. With the economic turn, we're worried that funding is going to run out for people that are still there."

Days before the fire, Ark Aid Mission had to close 70 crash beds because a portion of its funding ran out.

In November, the non-profit got the green light from city council to operate 120 shelter spaces at four locations until May 31. This is in addition to $2.6 million in funding that will go to six agencies running drop-in services and outreach programs into the spring — part of the city's whole of community response to homelessness. 

Stephanie and Sean Clark came to London to visit the city where their daughter, Olivia, died after the tent she was sleeping in went up in flames.
Stephanie and Sean Clark came to London to visit the city where their daughter, Olivia, died after the tent she was sleeping in went up in flames. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Although Olivia's parents are glad that more people will have beds to sleep in for a little bit longer, they fear that with worsening climate events, the need will only increase, said Sean. 

"When this initially happened we said, 'Why aren't these people deserving of a bed year-round?' And what we've seen with the effects of global warming, storms are getting more intense. Nobody should be outside in that, there should be shelter available for everybody," he said. 

"It's terrifying when there's a snowstorm or it's bitterly cold, not knowing if they're OK or they're safe," Stephanie added. 

More than just 'a homeless woman'

Originally from Brantford, Olivia was living rough in London for five years and the friends she made on the streets during this time became her family, her parents said. On Monday, Olivia's community and her parents organized a memorial for her in front of the Ark Aid building. 

The Clarks said Olivia's friend, who was in the tent with her that night and suffered injuries in the fire, has since received highly supportive housing, and they're "elated" to know he won't have to sleep out in the cold anymore. Still, they hope housing can be a reality for others as well.

It's important for the public to have empathy for those living rough, the Clarks said, adding they plan to carry on their daughter's legacy by supporting her community which meant the world to her.

"It hurt seeing her named as a 'Homeless 31-year-old woman' and we wanted people to see that she, and everybody in her community, are more than just that," said Stephanie. 

"People don't want to come forward and say who their loved one was so they just remain a nameless, faceless statistic, and that's sad. I understand why a family wouldn't want to come forward, but in order to get the supports in place and the general public demanding change, they need to see these people as human beings that deserve care and attention."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Isha Bhargava is a multiplatform reporter for CBC News and has worked for Ontario newsrooms in Toronto and London. She loves telling current affairs and human interest stories. You can reach her at isha.bhargava@cbc.ca

With files from Amanda Margison and Rebecca Zandbergen