His black leather jacket is the only remnant of Rene Bourassa’s life before a fire destroyed his home in downtown Red Deer last month.
“I forgot it at a friend’s place,” explained the 59-year-old — which is why his motorcycle jacket survived, unlike Bourassa’s other possessions, including nearly new furniture he’d recently acquired.
All things considered, he still considers himself lucky.
“You don’t go hungry in Red Deer. There are always some nice people to help you. A lot of people have helped me and I appreciate it very much.”
Bourassa has been resettled, along with the other 20 to 25 tenants of the affordable housing complex that went up in flames on Aug. 24.
His new home is in another Potter’s Hands building on 61st Street.
“It’s quieter,” he reflects, than the downtown complex that was susceptible to disturbances from indigent people and drug users in the area.
Bourassa had initially assumed the fire bell that went off while he was watching TV in his apartment on Little Gaetz last month was a false alarm.
Homeless people had been entering the building “and were always pulling the tab down,” he said.
“But this time, it didn’t shut off,” so Bourassa climbed the stairs from his basement apartment to investigate.
When he spotted dark smoke pouring from under the door of a second-floor apartment, Bourassa began running down the hall, pounding on doors to alert others.
Soon, firefighters and police were doing the same thing.
“They told me to ‘get out now,’ and I was getting the hell out… That building was so old, it went up like a match stick,” recalled Bourassa.
He estimates the structure was fully engulfed in less than half an hour.
Red Deer and Sylvan Lake firefighters spent much of that evening dousing the blaze. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
All tenants were accounted for, but very few of their belongings were recoverable from the wreckage.
“I haven’t gone down to look yet,” admitted Bourassa, who can’t imagine the smoky smell of the items being tolerable.
He’s replaced his furniture and clothes with the $300 vouchers for the Renew Thrift Store that Potter’s Hands provided to the impacted tenants. The charitable organization also gave out beds that had recently been donated by Olds College.
“We could accommodate most of the people who wanted us to find them a place to stay,” said Seth Schalk, manager of Potter’s Hands Ministries. Other people have been housed in other buildings, including the former Buffalo and Valley hotels.
“It wasn’t a problem. We just had to find out who wanted to live where…”
But he believes the loss of the downtown affordable housing complex will be felt by many other low-income people in the city.
Red Deer lacked affordable housing before the fire, and the gap is now even wider since there are fewer accommodations available for other people in need, he added.
Potter’s Hands has been partnering with the Mustard Seed and other local agencies to help those impacted by the downtown fire.
Bourassa, a Saskatchewan native who’d roamed North America for the “adventure” before coming to Red Deer in 1989, said “I’d just like people to know, don’t give up hope. There are a lot of organizations here willing to help you.”