08/19/2014 12:04 EDT | Updated 10/19/2014 05:59 EDT

Winnipeg's 'homeless hero' dies in same river where he saved people from drowning

WINNIPEG - A transient, frequently-jailed alcoholic, who became known as the "Homeless Hero" after saving two people from drowning, battled his demons right up until his death in the same river where he made his rescues.

Faron Hall of Winnipeg gained fame and civic honours in 2009 for putting his own life on the line when he dove into the Red River on two separate occasions to pull people out.

His body was recovered from the water by police on Sunday.

"I spoke with him about six weeks ago and he was asking me to help him get into ... a treatment centre near Kenora, Ont.," Marion Willis said Tuesday.

Willis opened her home to Hall, who was 49, after his first rescue in 2009. In the ensuing years, he would bounce between her home, a girlfriend's apartment and the streets.

"He said, 'I keep telling you this and it's true. One of these days I'm going to wake up and that's going to be the day I'm going to hang up the bottle,'" she recalled.

Details of how Hall died are sparse. Police have only said that the death was not suspicious and have left it to relatives to confirm his identity.

His uncle, Patrick Hall, said his nephew had a hard time adjusting to the spotlight.

"He never wanted to be known as a hero," Patrick Hall said. "He said, 'I'm pretty sure anybody would do that if they saw somebody in distress.'"

Willis believes Hall did not commit suicide. His friends told her he had removed his shoes and most of his clothes and laid them carefully by the riverbank last Friday, one of the hottest days of the summer.

"He likely decided to take a dip to cool off and then found himself in trouble."

Hall's life had more than its share of trouble.

He was the child of parents raised in residential schools. His mother was killed when he was a young boy and he was raised in foster care. He became an alcoholic as a young adult and fathered children, but had little contact with them.

He was thrust into the spotlight in May 2009 when he plucked a teenage boy from the frigid Red River. Hall had been sitting on the riverbank with a friend and heard the boy fall into the water. He went in and dragged the boy to safety.

Four months later, he came to the rescue of a woman who had fallen in from the shore.

For his efforts, Hall was given recognition and gifts.

Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz gave him season tickets to the minor-league baseball team Katz owns and a personalized jacket.

But the publicity made it harder for Hall to keep his battles with alcohol private. He was jailed for assault and was once beaten up by people who he said recognized him from media coverage.

He was repeatedly jailed for breaking court orders not to be intoxicated in public. He sought out and entered rehabilitation programs, which Willis said lasted 28 days and were too short to do any real good.

"There was never really any solid, well-thought out treatment programs for Faron Hall. Nor is there for any of the street people out there," she said. "So if you're without those types of social supports, you're pretty much doomed."

Willis allowed Hall to stay with her as long as he stayed sober. He inevitably started drinking again and headed back to the street.

"Faron did his own thing and he was stubborn in his own way," said Eric Robinson, Manitoba's deputy premier, who spoke with Hall in June.

"In spite of his intoxication — whatever level of intoxication he was at — he was a very kind soul."

Hall's family is no stranger to tragedy.

His sister Kristi was stabbed to death in 2006. His brother Wilson, who was also homeless, died last year and was buried in a pauper's grave four months before the family found out. About two weeks ago, Hall's father died in western Manitoba.

"He had just come back from that and I think he was having a very hard time," Patrick Hall said.

"Our family has suffered so much through deaths, violent deaths, and alcohol."