Jeffrey Hill used to see his brother, who was sleeping rough in London’s downtown core, on a weekly basis.
The corner of Richmond and Dundas streets was their checkpoint.
“That’s where I would find him if I wanted to help him, if he needed anything,” he explained. “Make sure that he was alive, that he was still eating… it was a time to chat, see how things were going.”
But as time passed, Spencer Lee Hill became harder and harder to find. By the time the 32-year-old man’s body was found last Thursday outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, more than a year-and-a-half had lapsed since Jeffrey saw him last.
“He was found at the church. There was a lot of people that walked past him that attended services. They were aware he was there, but he just became part of the wall, the next thing you’d see. That’s not how I want him to be remembered.”
Sitting on a couch inside his northwest London home, Hill fumbles with a memorial card from his brother’s funeral earlier this week. The photo of Spencer on that card — which becomes wrinkled and bent — comes from a trip to Ottawa roughly five years ago, when they both went whitewater rafting with their mom and her then-boyfriend.
“This is how I like to remember him,” said Hill. “He was strong, he had life ahead of him. He was healthy. He had a good head on his shoulders.”
One of three brothers who grew up in London together, Jeffrey says Spencer was generous, polite, and always the first one up in the morning so he could play video games before anyone else.
“He always had the jump on us,” Hill said.
At one point, the two of them were homeless in London together. While Jeffrey managed to get off the streets, find a partner, and start a family of his own, he says Spencer “fell through the cracks.”
“Spencer wasn’t good with his feelings. They were bottled up, and I think that’s why he was asking for help, ultimately, at the end. He needed help. He was angry. He needed guidance, and I don’t think he had that hand that he needed for him to turn, to come back to us.”
Jeffrey has since learned Spencer survived an overdose two days before his death. That’s the cry for help he wishes he could have answered.
“I would have stepped in, in an instant. Without thinking. If he was at that stage in his life, where he was going over the edge, I would have stopped him. I would have held my hand, and made sure he didn’t fall.”
It’s the most vulnerable people who are falling to opioid overdoses in London, explains Sonja Burke, the director of counterpoint harm reduction services at Regional HIV/AIDS Connection, where London’s overdose prevention site is embedded.
“It’s the most marginalized, the most struggling, the most isolated people who are passing away, in the middle of the night, outside. And it’s because their pain is so great, and that’s what I think people miss,” she said.
“If people can wrap their heads around the fact that people’s personal pain is so great, that they’re willing to risk everything. What does that say?”
London police suspect fentanyl, a potent opioid that can be between 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, played a role in three of the five overdose deaths between March 30 and last Thursday. Jeffrey says police believe his brother died after using fentanyl, though they won’t know for sure until a coroner’s report is finished in June.
So where is fentanyl coming from? Burke isn’t a medical professional, a chemist, or a member of law enforcement, but — as it’s been explained to her — organized crime groups are bringing it into Canada by shipping it as separate, legal, components, explained Burke.
“There are many, many, many analogs, or many many different types of chemicals within fentanyl,” she said.
“Different analogs are being produced out of country, they’re being shipped in… then what can happen is organized crime can get those different analogs and put them together themselves.”
Fentanyl can be mixed with other kinds of opioids and street drugs to make a batch last longer, she explained. As a result, people who use drugs — whether they’re seeking out fentanyl, opioids, or something else — don’t know exactly what they’re getting.
Burke illustrates the risk by drawing a comparison with chocolate-chip cookie dough. It has a particular makeup of sugar, milk, flour, and chocolate chips. But the chocolate chips are like fentanyl, and when you bite into the cookie you might get four chips or no chips at all.
“If you get four, you’re going to overdose,” she said. “If you get none, then you’re just going to have a certain effect.”
That’s why health officials and police have been urging people not to use drugs alone, and to carry naloxone — which can temporarily reverse the effects of overdose.
And in order to make sure people aren’t turning to drugs in the first place, Burke and Jeffrey Hill cite early intervention.
“We need to make sure we’re aware of it, and how we can fix these people because it is somebody’s brother, someone’s cousin, someone’s child,” said Jeffrey.
He’s launched a GoFundMe page to raise money for Spencer’s tombstone in Oneida Nation of the Thames First Nation, to make sure he isn’t forgotten. There’s also a memorial being held at 5 o’clock Thursday, outside St. Paul’s Cathedral.
“I don’t want this to happen to anybody else,” said Jeffrey.
“I don’t want that to happen to any other family, because nobody should have a broken heart or a lost individual ever, a family member, from something that could be prevented.”