Al Tysick’s Victoria is not the capitol of British Columbia that you’ve likely seen — the one with quaint Victorian buildings decked out with flowers. That’s Victoria for tourists. Al Tysick’s Victoria is the shadowland you can see at 5:00 a.m. in flower-free Rock Bay, when he pulls up in his Dandelion Society van.
Young and old, men and women, emerge from the nooks and crannies where they have spent a raw, rainy night and walk, limp or roll up in wheelchairs to the van where “Reverend Al” Tysick greets them with hot coffee, doughnuts and jokes. On this morning the joke is about the police who repeatedly cruise slowly by the van. “They are after our doughnuts,” Reverend Al whispers conspiratorially and the group of about 20 homeless people starts their day with a hearty laugh.
Reverend Al, a tall man in a sweater festooned with Canadian maple leaves, cuts a distinctive figure; in part because he looks a bit like French actor Gerard Depardieu. You also notice him because he is always in motion doing three things at once: handing out coffee, creamer, tarps, sleeping bags, hugs, smiles and cigarettes.
"Really, cigarettes?" we ask. "Aren’t they bad for people?"
“Would you bring a bottle of wine to a friend’s house? This is their home,” he says, gesturing down the street, clearly perturbed by the question. “I’m bringing them a small gift like you’d bring a bottle of wine!”
This hits a nerve because Alan Tysick loves the homeless like he loves his family. He wouldn’t do anything to harm them, but in this shadowland of mental illness, drug addiction and frostbitten limbs, harm is relative. One cigarette a day is what it takes to get some of his “family” to come out of the shadows so Tysick can assess what they really need: Dry socks? Trip to the doctor? Legal assistance?
As we follow Rev. Al through his hectic morning visitations all around Victoria, people buttonhole our TV crew to tell us something he did for them. “He told me I shouldn’t marry this woman. Darned if he wasn’t right,” says a longtime homeless man who described Rev. Al as, “loyal, faithful, relentless,” adding, “I’ve seen him more than once barefoot because he gave his shoes to someone who needed them.”
A man named Mikey, who lives in a leaking tent, credits Rev. Al for “getting me off drinking. And some other stuff too.” As he watches Al unpack a new tent for him he observes, “You know, he’s not a young man. I don’t know where he finds the energy.”
At 69, Al Tysick is retired. This is what he does in retirement, at least eight hours a day, five days a week, starting at 0-dark-hundred. Which leaves most of us mere mortals scratching our heads and wondering, “Where does this guy come from?”
Ottawa, it turns out. Before Al Tysick became a reverend he was an engineer in his home town, but even then the plight of the homeless tugged at heartstrings because of something — someone — he encountered one Christmas Eve.
“It’s snowing and I see somebody lying across the sidewalk,” Rev. Al says. “And I see someone in a Salvation Army uniform stepping over him. And I think, boy, the church has got to do better than that!” Tysick rushed up to help the man and discovered it was his own father, an alcoholic who had abandoned his family.
“That starts me on the journey of wanting to give my life to the people who are on the street,” he says.
Al Tysick’s been doing that in Victoria for more than a quarter of a century. People point to Our Place, a multimillion dollar center for the homeless, as his greatest accomplishment. But the bigger Our Place got, the more removed Tysick felt from his true calling: helping the hardcore street homeless.
You see them in the parks of Victoria, raging at bicycle police.
“You are a sociopath, you are lazy and you are stupid,” a skinny young man screams into the face of the officer who is trying to get him to move his things out of a city park. Nearby on the sidewalk, a woman in her 30s with a shopping cart spilling over with possessions is raving too — to herself. Unnervingly, she does so right into the lens of our video camera, casting her spell of despair against the world.
Most of us look away from these people who live on the street; an uncomfortable fact of life in most cities. But Rev. Al embraces them as his sons and daughters and that’s why when he “retired” he founded the nonprofit Dandelion Society. It’s a very small operation — just Al, one employee, volunteers and a van — struggling to meet an ever-growing need. In Victoria, shelter capacity jumped from 86 percent in 2010 to 112 percent in 2014. That means more people on the street, like Terry.
Terry had spent his adult life in prison for what he calls “a youthful mistake.” When he got out, the world had changed and he had no idea how to function. He roamed Victoria collecting cans for money and slept in the street.
The morning Rev. Al met Terry, two men had urinated on Terry’s sleeping bag and it froze overnight. “He leaned over me and said, 'My name is Reverend Al, and you are going to freeze to death if I don’t get you out of here right now,’” Terry says.
Painfully thin, bent like a wind-blown sapling and scarred from his tough life, Terry struggles to fight back tears as he completes the story: “And he wrapped me up, and he drove me around in his van for many hours.”
Al is not having any of this praise or sentimentality. “You’re getting soft, old man!” he tells Terry, who turns around and flips Al off. The two men share a laugh. This exchange is happening in a modest apartment that had been condemned by the city. Rev. Al fixed it up with his own labor — then gave Terry the first home he's had in his adult life.
There aren’t very many stories about the street homeless that end like this. “I bury an average of two people a week. This week I’m burying five.” Tysick, who is headed to a funeral right after our interview, says this in a matter-of-fact manner. It must be a clue to the miracle of this man — he doesn’t let loss slow his mission.
Tomorrow is another day, and whatever it brings — rain and rage or hugs and gratitude — Reverend Al will be there with doughnuts, dry socks and something else in short supply on the street: hope.
Jenny Cunningham’s favorite kind of story is the one she hasn’t done before. Whether it’s reporting for TV or writing for magazines, travel or tribulation, Cunningham likes discovering something new. At KCTS, Cunningham has covered everything from the history of Hanford’s race to build the atomic bomb to biodynamic wine to opera supernumeraries. Cunningham has been honored with television journalism's most prestigious awards including Emmy Awards and the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best News Series in America.
As a writer for magazines and newspapers Cunningham’s features have appeared in publications including the Irish Times, Sunset Magazine, Seattle Magazine, the Vancouver Sun, The Oregonian and Wine & Spirits Magazine.
Cunningham has a master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from Northwestern University and she graduated cum laude from USC with a BA in Journalism and a BA in TheaterMore stories by Jenny Cunningham