Fences and neighbours

by Yule Heibel on April 23, 2004

The Victoria Conservatory of Music, located at the corner of Pandora Avenue and Quadra Street, recently installed fencing, which is over 2metres high, along its Pandora Avenue entrance. The avenue entry opens into a courtyard area, now barred, that apparently had become a hangout and sleeping area for some of the homeless people (up to 600 per day) seeking shelter and food at the Open Door Ministry next to the Conservatory.

Pandora Avenue is a one-way that runs East to West into downtown. Designed as an avenue, it has a large “green” that runs along an off-centre middle for about 3 blocks. Both the Open Door Ministry and the Conservatory share a block of this greenspace. While Open Door is doing backflips to meet the needs of the homeless, whose numbers are swelling, the Conservatory decided to build a fence to keep “undesirables” out. I understand the latter’s position — they are not in the “social services to the homeless” field, and, financially struggling themselves, they can’t afford to allocate steady resources to clean up after people who might abuse their entry area as a public toilet, a place for using alcohol or drugs, or for general camping out. Point taken; but the imagery really gave me pause. Here you have two service-providers — the Conservatory and the Open Door ministry — who are both under financial stress, who are both trying to find the money to continue providing their services. One place gets out of hand (or its clients do), and the other place (which, despite a financial crunch, has a bit more cash) puts up a big fence. In reality, they have much more in common, but the condition of neighbourness is playing out as a tragedy of enforced difference. When government ceases to spend taxpayer money on ensuring that this kind of fence-building need not happen, instead spending our money to enshrine cronyism or ram privatisation down our throats, then we’re all getting screwed over.

But what I really wanted to do with my opener on fences and such was to point to an article I read last week about the Reverend Al Tysick of The Open Door Ministry. This picture is from that newspaper article. That’s Rev. Al on the left, sharing a happy moment with Archie Alook and “The Cowboy.” The photograph doesn’t give a real picture of just how broken and beaten many of Tysick’s congregation is, or that it’s expanding to include more families, and women with children. I’m not religious, but Al Tysick had me clutching my stomach when I read this:

Crowned with graying shoulder length hair, and clothed in shirts he sometimes plucks from the donation box, he’s hardly a theological poster boy.

He doesn’t talk like a minister – throwing “ass” or “shit” into a conversation – and he isn’t afraid to vocally challenge his beliefs.
Tysick is constantly wrestling with his faith, writing in a religious journal every day and searching for God in the desperate faces of his down-and-out congregation.

“When I write, I don’t always write good things. Quite often I question why God’s not helping,” he says, launching into one of hundreds of stories about The Open Door’s ever-expanding “family”.

One Friday, Tysick – tired after a typical 14-hour shift – climbed into his van for the commute home to Sooke.

As he started to pull away, he saw a man lying next to the fence, covered with a thin blanket.

“I really just wanted to go home. I was beat, dead tired, but I got out and went over. I bent down and pulled the blanket away.

“His hands were beaten and bloody with abscesses all over them. He was crying and I did my best to help. It’s moments like that when I ask, where the hell is God?” he says, rising out of his seat and pounding his palm on the table.

“It wasn’t until I was driving home that I realized I was holding Christ’s hands in my hands. I pulled over and cried. He appears in the broken, the weak and the downtrodden.

“I don’t live in a church of candles, of crisp, clean cloths and gowns. I live in the church of filth, of the profane, of fear – of death,” adds Tysick, who buried 54 Open Door regulars last year.

“I live in a world where you struggle to find hope. But this is where I belong. In a way, it’s where I’m from.” [More…]

If I had to, I could go and see a movie (you know the one, The Smashin’ of Christ), but I doubt I could do what Tysick does, and I know I couldn’t do it day in and day out. He refers here to the 54 Open Door regulars he helped bury last year: people who died, sometimes in outrageous conditions. Several died in dumpsters, caught in garbage truck compactors. When asked what could be done, Victoria’s mayor, Alan Lowe, “suggested that recycling and garbage companies lock all of their containers in the future.” That sounds like a fence-building response, similar to the Conservatory’s, not a bridge-building one. Is this really the best we can come up with?


Joel April 24, 2004 at 5:20 am

Fifty four? Sounds like you have a serial killer driving the dumpsters!

Joel April 24, 2004 at 5:21 am

My God, Yule. Are you turning religious on us? (Well, at least you’re looking at the right kind.)

Joel April 24, 2004 at 5:23 am

A last riposte: I’ll trade you twenty of my Reverend Lous for Reverend Al.

Kate S. April 25, 2004 at 7:11 pm

“His hands were beaten and bloody with abscesses all over them. He was crying and I did my best to help. It’s moments like that when I ask, where the hell is God?” he says, rising out of his seat and pounding his palm on the table.

“It wasn’t until I was driving home that I realized I was holding Christ’s hands in my hands. I pulled over and cried. He appears in the broken, the weak and the downtrodden.
Thank you for bringing tears to my eyes with that picture and story. A loving smile, reflecting a bursting heart, and grateful recipients. What a kind angel he is. I know how frustrated he must be.
I worked my whole life trying to feed the homeless, supplying shelters, etc. … till one day I finally realized I had to pull out of the whirling vortex to save myself. It is a never-ending job, and a soul-sucking occupation, not appreciated by the community who often shat upon my efforts, accusing me of contributing to the problem. (What’s that mean? That by feeding them, I was encouraging them to be homeless? Idiots.)
At least these people are real, having had any facades stripped away by hunger, cold, homelessness, illness, … they are left standing, if they are lucky, with a tattered blanket, authentic souls brightly shining, willing, in a heartbeat, to give you the shirt off their back, if they thought you could use it.

Good luck thinking on a solution to this problem. I never did.

bmo April 28, 2004 at 7:36 am

Is there a way someone like Tysick can be nominated for the Order of Canada.

As well, I’ve been thinking outloud elsewhere about the personal costs endured by those that decide to help the helpless. What sort of education or grounding or faith could possibly help you prepare to deal with the sort of inner pain and turmoil that must overwhelm you when trying (as Kate has expressed so well here) to help the helpless.

Joel April 28, 2004 at 6:51 pm

bmo, the usual way to be nominated for any high prize is to evince a willingness to sell out. For this reason, I hope Tysick does not receive the nomination.

Yule Heibel April 29, 2004 at 1:06 am

Thanks for commenting, everyone — I’ve been off the sauce, er, blog for a few days (and actually, I think the Harvard server was down for a while, too), which is why it’s been a bit dead around here. But know that I value and welcome anyone who reads and comments here. However… Joel, I know you didn’t mean it to come across this way, but please consider how you are perpetuating stereotypes of the Ugly American when you choose to lecture a Canadian on the value of the Order of Canada. Brian (bmo) is in fact quite correct that this citation, which can in fact be a pretty big stick in one’s arsenal, could go quite a ways in raising the profile of someone like Tysick. Yeah, maybe not in America, which is the only country on earth that really matters (kof), but here in Canada, it means something if you’ve got the Order of Canada. Ok?

Brian, it’s a good idea. Let’s start a write-in campaign. And when I scanned the 2000-2003 recipients, there were quite a few whose category was “voluntary service,” so Rev. Al’s work is a well-established precedent. He would have a bit more clout vis-a-vis some of the spineless MPs here in BC’s capital city as well as vis-a-vis our one-man-corporate-vaudeville-act known as the Mayor if he had that seal of approval in the back of him. What’s really interesting about Al Tysick is that he’s thinking strategically: how to unite boards, and all that. Official recognition wouldn’t hurt at all.

As Brian and Kate express it so well: how to help the “helpless” and how to recognise this as a valuable activity — that’s such an important question. It would probably be useful to make the barriers between the helpless and …the what?, the certain?, the sure? more porous. I think that in many ways this is happening already, but it’s happening in a generally unfortunate way. It’s happening in the self-help industry, in the huge marketing devoted to psychologisms, to various psychopathies, and new age psychospeak. In bad philosophies that advocate the synthesis of concepts which the philosopher tore asunder in the first place. In fallacies. It’s now fashionable for everyone to consider themselves a victim of something or other. That’s just another prison house. Many of these approaches are typically geared to success, toward being able to reach the point where you successfully celebrate your victimhood and achieve a new level of success. Eventually, you’ll get to the point where you can speak of “losers.” (Personally, everytime I hear someone use the term “loser,” I think “you’re a Nazi.” But that’s just me. I come, by birth, from a country that made triumph and being a member of the perfect race into a war machine ideology. And don’t try to tell me that wasn’t inherent in capitalism. And look around at all the A-listers in Life-And-Everything who like to toss the term “loser” about. It should scare the shit out of you.)

So, it’s not just a matter of making the “helpless” into strong triumphing successes, but of changing perceptions of success and failure. Partly, this would happen if “intact” (successful) people had contact with “broken” people in a non-stereotypical (and, ok, non threatening) way so that it would become apparent to everyone that there are different ways of being in the world. It’s not just one way or no way.

Remember how “disabled” kids used to be hidden away in institutions and were not part of the regular classroom at school? Clearly, that kind of segregation helped build walls of fear and loathing, along with the usual epithets of “spastic,” “retard,” and “gimp.” That sort of tucking-the-disabled-out-of-sight strategy is what allowed eugenics to formulate seemingly “rational” ideas about “racial hygiene.” In the case of the “helpless,” we only see them as beggars on the street, pathetic, obnoxious, ubiquitous (if you live in a year-round temperate climate like Victoria, or California, or West Coast Oregon & Washington), unwashed, sullen, Other, strange, possibly surly or aggressive, and on and on. In other words, not the people you’d have over for tea & scones.

But what if venues existed where the “helpless,” like those with disabilities (now integrated in schools), were integrated in a way that allowed you, however fleetingly, to experience them as individuals?

Look, I’ll admit that I’m not going to go out of my way to make friends with some of the deranged-seeming (as well as genuinely certifiable) panhandlers that festoon every Victoria pedestrian thoroughfare, but so far the only option I have to meet them is on the street (where I might not feel safe) or to ignore them and pretend they’re not really people. If some sort of venue existed — a platform for integration or exchange or communication, where the entire onus wouldn’t just be on me and on how much money I decide to give that particular beggar (a loonie?, a toonie?, something really huge, like a fiver?, but then, what would I give the next guy 20 metres along the sidewalk?) — I might be able to handle getting to know the “helpless.” (For non-Canadians: a loonie is a one-dollar coin — it has a loon on it — and a toonie is a $2 coin, called toonie ’cause it rhymes with loonie and two.) People like Rev. Al provide a venue where the “helpless” can meet each other as individuals, but there’s not much on offer for the non-helpless to meet the “helpless” in a non-threatening, integrated way.

There’s a really young woman who sits on Cook Street, in the Village, either by the Wine store or on the other side of the street by the post office. She has this frighteningly accusing stare — I walk past her and try to ignore her. I can’t figure her out. She has a boyfriend, who works the opposite side of the street, or a nearby corner. They are both able-bodied, and I’m filled with resentment that they aren’t working or doing something other than collecting scraps of coins tossed by frustrated Upright Citizens. I chafe at the fact that those coins don’t amount to anything at all, that if I added a loonie, it would mean nothing, and if I add nothing, it means even less. But the other day, she had left her Spot and was rampaging down the street, cursing her boyfriend at the top of her lungs, pacing like Mad Meg from corner back to Spot, to corner to Spot again, and so on. I realised she was mentally unwell.

This sounds weird, but at that moment I saw her as an individual I could understand. She was pissed off at her boyfriend who had done something stupid and unforgiveable and possibly terribly costly to their marginal existence — or perhaps he had done nothing and she was experiencing a moment of heat stroke or PMS of the 9th degree or something equally human, and perhaps her mental illness was bursting its boundaries. At any rate, she spoke. She wasn’t just this typically sullen creature who never spoke except for the spewed-mewed passive-aggressive request, “spare some change?” that suggested the infliction of knife-wounds, she was Real. Not “spastic,” not “retard,” not “gimp,” not “helpless”-end-of-story, but an individual with bits of thread and strands poking out all over, strands waiting to be connected in significant ways here, there, all over, socially.

If I don’t chicken out, maybe I’ll talk to her next time I pass her. It’s not a question of whether I give her a loonie or not — my paltry financial contribution isn’t going to matter that much, I can’t fix her financial mess, her homelessness, by myself. But it will matter, I suspect, if I actually manage to open my mouth and talk to her like she’s a human being. That’s going to cost me a lot more than a toonie or a fiver.

bmo April 29, 2004 at 3:34 pm

For some strange reason I’ve always enjoyed talking to the homeless. It’s a lot less scary than you think. (But then again I’ll talk to anybody.) And what I’ve taken away from these little chats – which cost me nothing, really, a bit of my time, five bucks, a cigarette – is the amount of warmth and generosity most (not all, granted) have offered me. Their willingness to engage in conversation, to tell a tale. I really can see what Rev Al gets out of it. (At the same time, I also recognize that I couldn’t do it. day in and day out. My sister is a social worker and I just don’t know how shes does it. Well, I do and it has cost her dearly on an emotional and psychological side.)

But the most impressive thing about his story is the fact that he is looking up, looking forward, as you say, he’s thinking.

I’m in as far as the Order of Canada thing goes. Whatever I can do. It looks like I’m not going to win one again this year anyway!

Phil Cubeta April 29, 2004 at 7:56 pm

Kudos for the post. Hope you will return to the theme of caritas. Hard to find bloggers who write about charity, caring, community. “Winners and Losers.” Darwin and Christ.

Gerry April 30, 2004 at 12:03 am

Your comment struck a cord with me, particularly:

Clearly, that kind of segregation helped build walls of fear and loathing, along with the usual epithets of “spastic,” “retard,” and “gimp.”

It’s a personal situation for our family, and although I don’t blog or comment much about it, I thought you might find this post by my wife, Debbie, where she discusses the way the term “gimp” has been reclaimed by the community to be interesting and related to your comment. Thankfully we have come a long way on these things, though there is a long way to go, and getting our daughter the education she deserves is an uphill struggle. It does our hearts good to hear that a young man with the same condition as our daughter is now an undergrad at Harvard.

And thanks for the story about Rev. Al and his ministry. We’re rooting for Brian’s project to get recognition for him. Contrary to Joel’s comment, I think that recognition of good works like his can be a very positive and powerful force. The only thing that could diminish honors like the Order of Canada is for it to be given to someone who would “sell out” to get it. Not likely for someone like this, more likely that he would bring honor to the award.

Debbie April 30, 2004 at 12:49 pm

I have very modest goals. I am hoping merely to scrape a chink out of a wall. Just tearing them down, one brick at a time.

This is a phenominol post. Just blows my mind. Like you, I could go see a movie, but it’s all I can do to keep moving forward on what I need to. There are too few Al Tysicks in this world, but it’s heartening to see that there are at least some, quietly attempting to give some folks some dignity and some spiritual peace of mind. Thanks kindly.

Joel May 1, 2004 at 4:18 am

The Ugly American bit hurt. Cynical American, yes. Consider my conditioning….

Joel May 1, 2004 at 4:26 am

Actually, let me give you the lecture about condescending towards me, Yule. I put up with enough patting on the head for standing up for people like Tysick here in the good old USA and seeing them ignored for their good work to be patted on the head by someone who does not go through what I deal with day in and day out as a “poor ignorant pacifist”. If I am cynical, it is because I’ve seen angels killed by innuendo here in the USA and if you want to count that as “ignorance” and “Ugly Americanism” on the order of George W. Bush, then you are the one who is perpetuating the stereotype about what it means to be an American, not me.

How about the Ugly Canadian who smiles and laughs and DOES NOTHING to help the Americans who struggle against this shit? How do you think a kick in the nuts and compression into your straw men is a cure for despair and frustration with the system that is spreading beyond our borders into the rest of the world?

Yule Heibel May 2, 2004 at 3:51 am

Debbie and Gerry, thanks for the link to your story. You have my respect, and Maura is still a lucky girl. Have you by any chance come across Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam? It’s an amazing story, too.

Phil, thanks for the feedback.

Debbie May 4, 2004 at 11:26 am

Sounds familiar, Yule. Thanks for the link.

I hope to write more on the blog some day.

Maura has a younger sister, Julia. Julia is really a gift for all of us. She has the joy and innocence that only a three year-old can have.

Kate S. May 6, 2004 at 3:20 pm

“…so that it would become apparent to everyone that there are different ways of being in the world.”

Exactly. Different ways of being.
And only a few degrees of separation between us all. (What’s that saying? “We’re all only two paychecks away from homelessness.” Yes.)

Gina Ogren October 29, 2004 at 3:46 pm

The first contact I ever had with him close up was when I was hitchiking out of Victoria and he stopped for us. He was attempting to change out of a t-shirt into a suit jacket while he drove through traffic, and getting tangled up with the seatbelt. He cussed and swore because he was lost and couldn’t find the church where he was supposed to speak.

I was an American runaway, on Vancouver Island in 1994. I had graduated from highschool two years early
There were two major reasons that I graduated early from highschool…..one was to get started as soon as possible on a medical degree with its involved ten years of schooling, and the other reason was a highly abusive, schizophrenic mother.

I’m not sure exactly what the award is that you have discussed in your blog, but let me tell you how Rev. Al sees publicity. Once when we were down from where we played the role of “roving, adventuring college-aged students” in Jordan River, my friend Chris asked Rev Al, regarding Al’s picture in the paper, “Does it feel good to get recognition, and your picture in the paper?”

It was contrary to my experience of every do-gooder Christian, missionary, or preacher, that I have ever know, but Rev Al said, after a pause, “If it brings publicity to the Open Door, it’s all right.”

He is so so so selfless. I don’t know how he does it. And even after all these years, and annual visits that I take to Vancouver Island to rain-camp in December with my daughter Glory, and staying at Rev. Al’s house with his family, he is still cryptic to me.

He is defined by the word “selfless”, and the reason that now, in my senior year of college, I have just now chosen to focus on social justice rather than medical school. I’m hoping to visit for an entire summer, in 2005 or 2006, to help out at the Open Door.

His kind of unconditional love, which is a huge focus at Open Door, is very very rare.

Gina Ogren
e-mail: thecanadianspirit@hotmail.com



Gina Ogren October 29, 2004 at 3:47 pm

I’m not sure what “gimp” is. I do know I really enjoyed your blog, and I will definitely return to see what else you have to say.

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