BRITISH COLUMBIA

Street preacher Rev. Al makes morning rounds for Victoria's homeless

12/23/2014 05:22 EST | Updated 02/22/2015 05:59 EST
VICTORIA - High-beams shining, horn blowing and forks outstretched like a futuristic mechanical animal reaching for its prey, the garbage truck approaches the dumpster in the early morning darkness.

In what could be a scene from the post apocalypse, screeches are heard coming from inside the bin where people desperately throw clothes and boxes out onto the sidewalk as the machine advances. Three people leap out before the truck's forks connect with the bin and toss back the remaining contents of the dumpster.

It's a cold morning for Victoria, with the temperature dipping just below freezing.

A woman in a T-shirt, jeans and high-heeled shoes slips on the sleeveless black and white apron she just pulled from the dumpster. She heads across the street to a small lot at Rock Bay and Government streets where Rev. Al Tysick is waiting with coffee, doughnuts, bagels and cigarettes.

"Al, you're the best. Thank you," she says.

Tysick, Victoria's street preacher for almost 25 years, is about to start his early morning rounds.

He hands over the cream jug, "You're pouring."

In what seems like seconds, about 20 people are crowded around Tysick's Dandelion Society van waiting for coffee or rummaging through the back seat looking for socks and gloves. One man wearing an old hockey helmet arrives on a motocross bike, another is wearing women's shoes and a long coat. Makeup is smeared on his face.

"I'm consistent," Tysick says. "I'm here five days a week. They get to meet someone who cares for them. I'll take them to the hospital, try to find them a place."

Tysick, 68, makes about five stops at downtown locations where he offers hot drinks, food and cigarettes to the city's homeless and destitute. The cigarettes are his way of keeping a running count of people.

He buys five packs of 20 cigarettes and each smoke counts for a person. This day, he hands out 80 cigarettes.

The United Church minister says he prefers to bring the presence of Jesus Christ to people on the streets rather than to those seated in the pews. He spent 10 years in Ottawa doing the same street ministry before arriving in Victoria.

"I'm trying to be the hands — to live out that gospel message," he says, referring to the Bible. "I try and really be the bread and the wine, meaning I give of myself. How far would you go for your son or daughter?"

Tysick says his work often puts him in unsafe places where he encounters people who are lost and staring into the abyss.

"I'm willing to — I'm going to say this — I'm willing to die for them if necessary," he says. "I'm in situations sometimes which are dangerous and I have been in situations which you are putting your life on the line."

He says he's discussed the dangers with his wife and family, and he doesn't want them grieving if the worst happens.

"It's a calling to the ministry I'm talking about," says Tysick, whose father was once a street person in Ottawa. "That calling comes from, I believe, trying to get to know him and getting to know him through the people I've served."

At Yates and View streets, where new, high-rise condominiums are filling in the single-storey store-front buildings, a man who appears to be in his late 50s arrives on his bike hauling a make-shift trailer that appears to hold his life's possessions. He opens a cardboard box to reveal what appears to be a young owl he found on his morning travels.

"It was laying in the middle of the road up in Oak Bay," says the man who would only say his name was Bill. "It's probably a fledgling trying to fly. He's just a little defenceless bird who needs some help, and I'm going to take care of him today."

At the next stop at the nearby Seventh-Day Adventist Church, the front entrance is covered with people in sleeping bags. On the steps and sidewalk are about two dozen others, wide awake and waiting for Tysick to arrive.

"I'd say this is like waking up little birds in the morning," says Ann Cameron who volunteers with the Dandelion Society. But instead of chirping, there's the sound of people chattering and thanking Tysick for coffee and cigarettes.

"In the mornings, they are at their best and I am at my best, too," says Tysick.

One man, who didn't want to give his name, says Tysick's morning visits give people a welcome start to what often ends as trying days.

"It's something to look forward to getting up in the morning," he says. "People wake up happier. As the day goes along people get owly, cranky and conflicts start. This morning coffee and smoke is a nice, peaceful waking up thing."

Gord Tremeer, who says he can't make ends meet on the $11 an hour he is paid as a labourer, says he often gets his coffee and breakfast from Tysick.

"He's probably one of the best people in this entire city," he says. "He's always happy. He's always upbeat. He makes a massive difference in this city."