Gone but not forgotten

More than 100 poor, homeless and at-risk people die in Victoria each year. Community memorials are held every week to celebrate their lives.

Rev. Al Tysick stands at the Memorial Wall in Our Place remembering the homeless who have died.

Today is Gary (JD) Gilroy’s memorial. The cafeteria at Our Place will be packed with 300 people. He was popular and his “family” will come to remember him.

“We are the only family they have,” Rev. Al Tysick says of the large number of Victoria’s street community who frequent Our Place. 

Rev. Al hosts two memorials every week. That is a huge proportion – about one-tenth – of Victoria’s homeless population, estimated by the Mayor’s Task Force on Breaking the Cycle of Mental Illness, Addictions and Homelessness at 1,550 in 2008. And not every member of that population frequents Our Place.

That raw mortality rate clashes grossly with one of the few studies on deaths among the homeless. The B.C. Coroners Service released a report stating 18 homeless people died in Victoria between 2006 and 2008. The reason for the disparity between the Coroners Service report and the frequency of Our Place memorials could be in the definition of homeless and causes of death.

Rev. Al says he’s holding fewer memorials lately. Five years ago he would perform three a week. The Mustard Seed and the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Centre do memorials by request, but hold fewer than Our Place.

“Most of the memorials we’ve gone to aren’t that he OD’d or drank himself to death, it’s that he had a heart attack and died,” says Brittney Johnstone, access support worker with the Victoria AIDS Resource and Community Service.

Rev. Al agrees deaths are more often tied to natural causes than drug use.

“When you’re homeless, it takes a toll on you,” he says. “Our immune system just gets so bad. It’s really the lifestyle that takes them.”

Sleeping outdoors, poor hygiene, a scarce diet deficient of nutrients, and addictions are hard on the body. Pneumonia hits often and can be deadly. Infections go untreated,  and left to fester, become debilitating.

The number of suicides, Rev. Al adds, is in line with the rate among the housed and employed population.

It’s normal for hundreds of people to attend a memorial at Our Place.

“It helps me to know there’s (support) out there,” says Gina Williams, who frequents Our Place. “I go to a lot of services just to show that I care.”

Last year, David, her husband of 14 years, died. Depression and alcohol kept her away from his memorial, but the knowledge that others went to remember him is comforting, she says. 

Now, like many others who have died, his picture hangs on a wall in the chapel. Williams visits it daily.

“I say hi to him every morning,” she says.

At the memorials, people sing and people dance. They shout, they laugh and most cry. The closure the memorials give is vital, Johnstone says.

Rev. Al tries not to cry while leading a service, he says, but he has failed to hold back the tears many times.

His focus is on providing a venue to celebrate a life that’s passed so people can remember in their own way.

“This is their home, so it’s nice to have a spot that is not a church, not a funeral home. If your sister died or your mom died, you’d have some pictures of them because they’re important to you. And I (hang their pictures) because I wanted to say they’re important.”

ecardone@vicnews.com

 

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