Downtown’s shepherd of lost souls

Having found a temporary refuge from the cold and wet streets outside, dozens of homeless people are crowded into the noisy confines of the Our Place drop-in shelter on Johnson Street.

Some sit huddled around tables, warming their hands on steaming mugs of coffee. At the back of the room, an elderly man slowly picks through racks of donated clothing in search of a coat that will keep him dry in the foul weather. One young woman with wet hair plastered against her neck waits patiently as a volunteer with medical training tends to her sore and blistered feet.

Other people lie on the floor beside their dogs or slump in chairs to catch a few minutes of much-needed sleep, as the surreal, glittery images of a The Price is Right episode flicker on the colour television overhead.

Amid all of this boisterous activity, a tall figure with long, grey hair moves energetically among groups of people to ask how they’re doing, provide advice or offer a few words of encouragement to desperately poor men and women who are already at their wit’s end. Officially, Tysick is the executive director of Our Place — an “alliance” of the Upper Room and Open Door shelters. However, he is also a valued friend to many of the folks who pass through his doors and a tireless advocate for the homeless community throughout Greater Victoria.

A typical workday for the 60-year-old starts at 4:30 a.m., as he prepares to open the shelter and deal with hundreds of minor (and occasionally major) crises that inevitably crop up over the course of the day. The drop-in shelter is open seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Tysick will often remain onsite until closing time — or beyond. It’s a job that requires lots of energy, passion and optimism, as well as faith in the inherent goodness of people and the resilience of the human spirit.

Tysick’s upbringing in a low-income Ottawa neighbourhood had a direct impact on the career path he would eventually follow. He and his four sisters were raised by his mother, who was a devout and strong-willed Catholic and was devoted to the church. His father, however, was a war veteran and chronic alcoholic who spent much of his time on the street, leaving the family to struggle without him and rely on welfare to survive.

At the age of 13, Tysick was walking around downtown Ottawa during the Christmas season. He watched a man wearing a Salvation Army uniform step right over a drunk who was lying on a sidewalk in front of a Banks Street hotel, without even stopping to see if he needed help.

“I walked up and it was my dad,” Tysick recalls. “I thought, ‘Boy, the church has got to do better than that.’”

Although he graduated from university as an electrical engineer and landed a good job at the National Research Council, Tysick became increasingly involved in church activities in his old neighbourhood and eventually received a “calling” to take a more active role in religious life.

“I heard a lot about the Christian story in my home,” Tysick says. “It was just one of those agonizing feelings that wouldn’t let me go.”

Although he concedes that he hadn’t read the Bible very thoroughly growing up, Tysick began taking night courses in religious studies at Carlton University. He made “a little deal with God” that if he finished his degree, he would go into the Church full-time.

“Four years later, I had a BA in religious studies in my hand and went to McGill for my master’s degree. The rest is history.”

As an ordained minister with the United Church of Canada, Tysick provides spiritual guidance to those who seek it, but the bulk of his time at Our Place is spent dealing with more earthly matters -— such as providing homeless people with temporary shelter, a bite to eat and a chance to get out of the cold for a few hours. During the recent heavy snowfall in Victoria, he worked around the clock to help make sure the estimated 900 homeless people in the Capital Region weren’t forgotten in all the chaos.

People can end up on the street as a result of bad luck, financial hardship, chronic illness or any number of other problems, which include ongoing struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, Tysick says. Whenever people in those circumstances are crammed together in one room, there’s bound to be tension that results from prolonged hunger, fatigue and a sense of hopelessness. Tysick says he and his staff keep an eye out for any signs of impending trouble, but adds that there are certainly times when that frustration comes to the surface.

“The constant rain and all the people packed in here doesn’t help the situation at all. People are really tired and have no place to sleep,” he explains.

Nonetheless, there is a surprising amount of laughter in the shelter. The enthusiasm that “Rev. Al” has for his work and the genuine concern he demonstrates for the Our Place patrons is infectious.

“When I come here, I’m home,” says a tired-looking man in his 30s. “I’ve got a family.”

Whether he’s playing a game of pool with a regular or helping someone new to the city figure out where to go for social assistance, Tysick treats everyone he meets with dignity and respect. As one piece of artwork on the wall states, the environment is one of “love offered without judgment.” The homeless people who crowd into the shelter each day are not just nameless shapes in Tysick’s eyes; he sees their potential as well as their problems.

“I think I often see my father,” he says quietly. “I know now, after the experience I’ve had, that within that person there’s a person who didn’t want to end up here. That wasn’t a choice ... There’s something else under all of that. There is hope and there is yet life.”

Tysick says the challenges he and the rest of the Our Place staff members face every day are the direct result of society’s failure to attend to the basic needs of the homeless and ensure that those who fall on hard times are treated with compassion and understanding.

“We are completely failing in many areas,” he says, adding that access to affordable, long-term housing is the biggest obstacle that poor people run up against. Other issues, in his view, include inadequate support for those with mental health issues or those who are dealing with drug and alcohol problems.

Tysick runs ongoing outreach programs to raise awareness of the plight of the homeless throughout the Capital Region. It’s an uphill struggle, but he’s hopeful governmental agencies will start to work more closely with communities, businesses and individual citizens to bring about a “wind of change.”

“We have to attack this social issue, because it is a cancer eating at the very fabric of our society ...” he says. “One thing for all of us to remember is that the solution is a collective solution. We don’t only look to government.”

Our Place receives the bulk of its capital funding from individual donors and the shelter also relies on local businesses and social service agencies to provide day-to-day necessities. Non-monetary donations may include leftover restaurant food, boxes of cereal or bags of day-old bread -- or even bouquets of flowers that “just appear” at the front desk.

The struggle to cover basic operating costs, such as electricity, heat and telephone, is one shared by many other social service agencies in the downtown core. Money is always tight. The Our Place shelter has five salaried staff on the payroll, but it also relies heavily on the unpaid work of dozens of volunteers who help out any way they can.

At the back of the shelter, past a homeless man who’s playing an upright piano with remarkable skill, the walls are covered with photographs of former Our Place regulars. Tysick and his staff always endeavour to hold funeral services for street people who die, some of which attract hundreds of mourners. The photographs serve as a silent tribute to members of the downtown homeless community who have perished on the street.

“Otherwise, many of them would be lost or forgotten,” Tysick explains. “I really try to make the point that this is a family; it’s not just a drop-in centre. You are remembered and you will be remembered.”

Despite the job’s long hours and the many difficulties that come with the territory, Tysick says he can’t imagine himself not working on behalf of the homeless.

“I never think about doing something else, but I do get frustrated,” he concedes. “I get frustrated with the lack of ability to really help someone, especially when someone really wants help and we haven’t got a place to put them.”

With the scheduled completion of the new Our Place facility on Pandora Street this fall, Tysick and his staff will be in a much better position to assist street people and others who have fallen on hard times. The building will include temporary housing (with 45 beds) and provide “transitional services” to help the homeless get back on their feet.

Tysick knows all too well how easy it is for a person to end up on the street and he emphasizes that mental illness, poverty and homelessness can affect any family in the Capital Region.

“There but for the grace of God go I,” he says, quoting the 18th-century English church minister George Whitefield. “It could be me. How would I want to be treated?”

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