Virgil Frencheater has been on and off the streets for almost two decades.

How a broken heart led to a life on the streets

A life of sobriety was within his reach. Virgil Frencheater had a place to sleep, shower and eat within four walls. He was on the road to recovery. Again. But something was missing.

This is the fourth in a five-part series on homelessness in Red Deer. On Friday, we examine the city’s plan to end homelessness.

A life of sobriety was within his reach.

Virgil Frencheater had a place to sleep, shower and eat within four walls. He was on the road to recovery. Again. But something was missing.

“Being sober, I was alone,” said Frencheater.

The 44-year-old could not ignore his street family, who were still scraping out an existence in Red Deer.

It wasn’t long before he returned to his old life.

“I see all my friends and family out there,” said Frencheater. “I miss them. I came out to be with my friends because they are the only ones I know. I have been dealing with them so long. I just see them out here. I couldn’t be inside Safe Harbour House. I didn’t want to stay there like that.”

Frencheater’s been on and off the streets for two decades in places like Red Deer, Edmonton and Rocky Mountain House. Just a few short years ago, he dressed in the long flowing, coloured Cree regalia as he performed the traditional Cree grass dance before school children, politicians and the general public.

These days, most people take little notice of Frencheater when he walks the city’s streets in his ball cap, scruffy black T-shirt and ripped jeans.

Frencheater says the death of his parents and a broken heart forced him on the streets.

“It was a broken heart,” said Frencheater. “That’s what got me out there. . . . For a lot of people, it is a broken heart that takes them out to the streets.”

He said living on the streets is not easy but there can be some positive experiences. Mostly it’s the time spent with the street community, who look after one another and treat each other like family.

“I love my homeless family,” says Jordyn Brown, 19, who has couch surfed for five years since running away from her grandmother’s home.

In those five years, Brown’s been in an abusive relationship and had a daughter she does not live with.

“It’s better than my real family. . . . When I stepped into Berachah Place, the first words I heard were ‘Family is for life.’ ”

There’s also the front-line workers who offer smiles, services, comforts and lend an ear to listen.

But the everyday challenges that the homeless face outweigh the positives: finding food, shelter, water and clothing –– the necessities of life every single day of the year.

Pat Roan, 52, says those options are on the street but they are not likely all in one place.

That means eating a meal at Loaves and Fishes, sleeping at People’s Place, drinking water from the Rotary Park fountain and picking bottles out of a dumpster in order to buy a pair of shoes that fit, she said.

“It’s hard to live when you walk the streets every day,” says Roan, homeless for more than 12 years.

“Your feet hurt and you have to find a place to sleep.”

If the shelters are full, they must find another safe and secure spot to sleep at night. Safe from others who are looking for trouble or to pinch your sparse belongings.

Each day is a new struggle, says Vince Gouda, 21, who happens to be Frencheater’s son and also homeless.

Gouda lived in Rocky Mountain House until he split up with a girlfriend and followed his father to Red Deer.

Gouda has seasonal work in landscaping but he doesn’t have enough money for a place of his own. A good portion of his lean paycheques goes to the bottle.

Gouda says he wants his own place and to get clean.

“I do but it’s really hard,” said Gouda. “I am scared of the hangovers.”

Imagine waking up under a bridge or on a park bench with the sweats, seizures and headaches without the comforts of fully-stocked medicine cabinet. And the only fix is another swallow.

When the liquor store is closed and you’re down to your last dollar, Listerine is the only option, he said.

“When you’re a chronic, you have to drink that,” said Frencheater. “You have no choice.”

Wanda, who didn’t give her last name, lived on the streets for five years after a relationship fell apart and she had a mental breakdown. She said she just didn’t care anymore. She got hooked on crack cocaine and lost everything.

“It’s very easy to get addictions when you’re on the streets,” says Roan. “That’s what you do day-by-day when you’re on the street. You are always looking for that high.”

Roan lived in Hobbema, where she got hooked on morphine. In 2000, she hitchhiked to Red Deer to get into the methadone clinic.

“I was tired of being a druggie,” said Roan. “My last drink of methadone was 12 years ago and now I’m hooked on crack. But I am slowly getting out of it. Maybe I smoke three times a week. Before it was every day of the week.”

Roan said at this point in her life, she is comfortable living on the streets interacting with others who come from all walks of life. She said she would rather be on the streets than in the shelters because of the limitations placed on the guests.

Wanda got her life back with the help of local agencies about six years ago. She has her own place downtown. She has rebuilt her relationship with her 21-year-old son.

Roan said she has seen young teenagers hanging out in spots where the homeless frequent, “trying out the street life.”

Street life is not one she recommends.

“Because once you get into it, it’s so hard to get out of it, especially if you have addictions,” said Roan.

Gouda is slated to enter a detox centre. Frencheater is unsure whether he will dance again because of the pains in his legs. Brown wants to get her daughter back and move to British Columbia with her new boyfriend. Roan is slowing weening herself off crack.

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