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Reverend Al, Homeless Hero

December 21, 2015

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.

Tourists love Victoria’s old-world charm but are unaware that the city has a significant homeless population.

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?

“Miss Evan” says Al Tysick is her hero, because he knows what homeless people need

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.

Rev. Al helps out Mikey by giving him a new tent. The one Mikey has been sleeping in is leaking.

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.”

Rev. Al helped Terry get the first home he’s had as an adult .

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.


Made possible in part by

Jenny Cunningham

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 Theater

More stories by Jenny Cunningham

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Rev. Al really is a Victoria legend. I see him around town helping people as much now as a 35-year-old professional as I did as a 15-year-old kid panhandling downtown. He's an absolute godsend to this city. His legacy is massive, in humanist terms.
This story is so incredibly heartwarming to read :)

When I lived in Victoria, I often saw and heard about Rev. Al. I had the privilege of personally meeting him at the funeral service/remembrance of a good friend's drug-addicted son. Rev Al invited this young man's friends to speak and, in spite of their often crude language, encouraged them to continue telling their stories. After the young man's friends and family spoke, Rev Al spoke about the kind things the boy had done for others such as giving another man the shoes off of his feet and assuring Rev Al that it was "no problem, I'll just go down the street and steal another pair". These are the people that Rev Al deals with every day in a totally non-judgemental way and treats them as friends, calling them by name, giving hugs and encouragement no matter what their condition is...drunk or sober, he treats the street people with dignity and respect. Rev Al is Victoria's Mother Teresa! Loves all and accepts all regardless of how they look, how they smell or how they speak. God bless this wonderful man.

I've known this man for 20 years and he's a miracle for the homeless. Never stops, never wavers. He is an everyday hero, and I'm proud to call him my friend.

I met Reverend Al in 2006 when I went to the Our Place drop in center on Johnson street. before the new building was built on Pandora. I was without shelter and in need of a tent and sleeping bag. There was no help coming from the social services office and I was without any funding of any kind. Reverend Al and I spoke and he went out and bought me a sleeping bag and a tent out of his pocket. I never expected to be helped from anyone but he surprised me to my relief and helped when there was no help anywhere in sight.
I am fortunate to know him and I do not know if he is aware of just how important it was to get help from this man. I was not very christian orientated and I was not looking in that direction. My experience with him changed my life forever in a way he probably does not know. Today I am actively involved in the homelessness in Vancouver. I bean volunteering at a local church in Van and since then I have been baptized and I have become aware of just how important Jesus Christ is when all looks hopeless and it is a life of misery and pain with many many years of addiction and legal system stays. Today thanks in part to Al I am a christian and I am proud to say that since my acceptance of a higher power actually being real I have been clean and sober for more than 5 years and I am now working for a church in Vancouver assisting with the operation of a weekly meal and shelter program. I have been actively involved since 2012 and I have become an employee of my church and my life has become so good that it amazes even me that by meeting Al and seeing what he does has influenced me to seek out some peace by becoming a caring and understanding human being. Reverend Al is probably the main reason I do what I do today.
Thanks Reverend Al and I hope that you get your recognition of just how vital he is to so many people and he does it not for cash income and he does not do it to boast or try to impress anyone. I truly wish that there were more people like him in this world because if there were there would not be this homelessness situation we have right here in our country. Imagine if the federal and provincial governments got there acts together and fixed the homeless problem. the government can find funding for Syrian refugees but they cannot fix the children going hungry,the single mothers that cannot work because child care is far too expensive and you would have to work two jobs just to stay fed and housed never mind paying for day care. The veterans who served our country and brought about change right here and fought and died soi that we coulod enjoy the freedom and the social justices we have today. The new refugees are very fortunate to find themselves in our beautiful country and they are experiencing freedoms they have never known because our veterans fought for the rights we enjoy today. The federal government can allot over 160 million dollars to fund these refugees but they cannot support our children or our elderly and most important the very people who died so that we can boast about this awesome free country we find ourselves living in.
If there were more Reverend Al's in the positions of power there would be enough funding to fix all the problems we face and not just helping the poor and the oppressed of other countries but actively fixing all these other issues here inside our borders.
Reverend Al you are a champion of the poor and the homeless and I am fortunate to know him and I am happy fashioning myself after this awesomely generous man who wants no special recognition just love and happiness for all.

Reverend Al should lead a campaign to seize all the homes along beach drive for the revolution.

Did the lawsuits against him get settled? They weren't mentioned in this article. I wondered what happened and if he ever got his name cleared.