Three hours into a council committee meeting, during a discussion of quarterly statistics, is not often the time one encounters a human tragedy.
That’s what happened recently though in Cumberland. Council had been discussing numbers from different departments when council member Vickey Brown pointed to a line tucked into the end of the RCMP’s report for the community. Of note, the document said that 10 of the files from the quarter were associated with a single person.
Visibly moved, Brown responded that the person in question had passed away on Jan. 12, as it turned out just weeks after his 41st birthday, and she took the opportunity to add that this was a case where the system failed to provide the support he badly needed —in other words, a case of someone slipping through the cracks.
What the report did not mention was the identity of the person attached to that statistic. This person’s name was Tyler ‘Roby’ Oliver, known to some in Cumberland as ‘Apollo.’
In an interview later, the councillor’s brother, Matt Brown, went further, saying this was not simply a matter of someone falling through a crack.
“He didn’t slip through the cracks,” he says. “He fell through a gaping hole.”
Brown had known Roby since their school days in Royston. Roby — pronounced ‘Robbie’ — was in his wedding party and they remained friends until Brown accepted some tough advice, which was to cut ties, as heartbreaking as this was.
“We watched this all happen,” he says. “You’re mourning the loss of someone while they’re still alive.”
Life took a turn 4 years ago
This was not a situation of someone who started to face serious trouble from a young age. Roby loved music and was an avid snowboarder. He’d lived in Whistler and run businesses. About four years ago though, facing some complicated emotional troubles, he started on opiates, which led to his decline and eventually his death.
“He was being challenged emotionally at that point, and then he tried fentanyl,” says his mother, Jenica Shandler. “That was unbelievably the worst thing he could have ever done.”
He tried Suboxone to get off the opiates, then took himself off that too abruptly, against what a doctor had recommended, and it resulted in psychosis.
“He never returned,” she says. “It’s a complex story.”
He was on the streets for a time, and he then started using crystal meth, which made matters worse.
“It eats your brain, it eats your body,” she says. “It’s a vicious, vicious cycle.”
She recalls her son as a loving, warm person, at least until the fentanyl and crystal meth. Roby had gone into court-ordered rehab while in the Lower Mainland, but she questions the logic of this, saying forcing someone into treatment is bound to fail. When Roby got out, he found his way back home to the Comox Valley.
He’d been homeless, and with nowhere else to go, Shandler took in her son during the last year, letting him stay in a trailer or in space in the basement. The police often made visits to deal with his erratic behaviour. Many who knew him turned away, she says.
“Everybody backed off, and then you’re left in this madness by yourself,” she says.
Matt Brown explains that if there were incidents with the authorities, Roby was not responsible for all of the wrongs done in the community and he ended up a scapegoat for many.
Friends tried to help
Over the last year, a few did keep their eyes out for Roby. Melissa Roeske had met him about five years ago and remained friends. She’s volunteered with the Care-A-Van, which provides mobile care and health services for people in need. Last year, she also started working at a job near where Roby was staying with his mother, so she was able to help check on him. She and a few others even set up a private Facebook group to stay connected and watch out for him.
By the end he was cold and worn out, hurting from a knee injured while snowboarding on top of everything else, but he still seemed to have spirit left in him. Roeske says he was performing on the street for people near the end. If he could be sweet and full of creative energy, especially for music, the drugs could bring out the other side.
“All he wanted was music…. He wanted to bring people together,” she says, but adds, “When he was ‘Apollo,’ he was in the storm.”
Roeske says his downfall has hit his mother hard not only from witnessing the end of her son’s life but also from the difficulty of living through this in a small community where so many people know each other.
“She was really stigmatized,” she adds.
One thing his friends and his mother make clear is the need for far more help for people like Roby, those in the throes of addiction or mental health crises.
“There’s just no services,” Roeske says.
On top of this, the issue goes well beyond old, familiar notions of ‘overdosing.’ With drugs like fentanyl, a challenge is a ‘toxic’ supply — poisonous, as some say — and it requires a re-think by people in positions to do something. Finally, another obstacle, they say, has come from privacy laws designed to protect an individual’s rights, but which the people who knew and loved Roby say are based on the assumption people like him are in position to look after themselves. The result is it becomes impossible for them to intervene.
According to Jenica Shandler’s friend Gail Meade, it became too easy for Roby to become ‘demonized’ in the community, especially when little happens to people poisoning him with the drug.
“Everyone ignores what they’re actually seeing,” she says. “These people are known…. Call it what it is: It is poison; it is deliberate; it is about money; it is about power… and people don’t want to hear that.”
She echoes other’s concerns about the obstacle erected by privacy laws, saying people need to be allowed to step in to help someone who is not competent.
“You’re condemning them to whatever evil is out there,” she says. “That is wrong, that has to change.”
More help needed
Grant Shilling of Dawn to Dawn Action on Homelessness Society knew Roby, having worked with him when he lacked housing. He knows others like Roby, and he concurs about the need for more help for people facing this crisis. It starts with safe housing for them, and he thinks something like the new shipping container homes at Maple Pool in Courtenay could have helped Roby. At the same time, Shilling knows people ready to go into rehab but they can face waiting lists of a couple of months. Beyond this, there is a desperate need for mental health outreach workers who can step into situations now being left to the police.
“The police become the de facto health workers,” he says. “As a worker, it’s deeply frustrating.”
If Roby was in some ways alone in his struggles, he was far from the only one struggling. The BC Coroners Service reported on Feb. 11 that 2020 was the deadliest year yet for drug-related deaths.
In his case, his decline and death present a complex story, as his mother puts it, but as a start, she and those who loved him hope more people can get past their prejudices around addiction so something can finally be done.
“We have to speak about it,” Shandler says. “He was just a wonderful person.… He just gathered people together. He was a bright light.”