Sitting at his dining room table, Virgil Frencheater looks out the window and stares at the pouring rain beating down on the sidewalk.
It wasn’t too long ago that Frencheater would be tucked under a plastic bag trying to stay warm and dry in the downpour.
These days Frencheater, who carved out an existence on the streets for more than a decade, doesn’t have to worry about the inclement weather.
Since October 2013, the 46-year-old has called Safe Harbour Society’s Harbour House home where he is working on improving his health and staying sober.
Harbour House has space for eight people who have the most difficulty accessing and sustaining housing.
There are not a lot of rules but there are expectations. Open since 2007, it is operated with a Housing First approach of “house them first, help them as you go along.”
The house is considered a “using house” but no illegal substances or physical violence are permitted on the non-smoking property. Staff are on site 24 hours.
“I felt even if I went to a sober house I would still end up drinking even if I wanted to,” Frencheater said last week. “There’s no use going to a sober house. If I am going to quit it doesn’t matter where I am … if a person wants to use, they will use.”
Things were going good for Frencheater for about seven months. He didn’t succumb to peer pressure or fall back into an old routine.
But his frustration and sadness for his homeless family still on the streets weighed heavy on his mind. Frencheater began having four or five drinks a day and accepting a shot of vodka from friends in May. Two weeks ago, he ended up at the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre where he stayed for a week because of health issues.
“For awhile I felt, if you can’t beat them, join them,” said Frencheater. “What sense is that? If you can’t beat them … Maybe this will be a lesson to someone what happened. This is what happens. If it can happen to me. It can happen you. ”
Case worker Candace Thomson said it is unrealistic to think there will not be bumps on the road for people who are dealing with addictions or other issues. Thomson said they have seen a lot of growth and change in Frencheater since he moved into the home.
“He is a soft and caring person,” said Thomson. “One of the most powerful things I heard him say over the last year is that his humanity has been restored. Virgil really cares about people. You can really see that in the way Virgil lives his life.”
Harbour House manager Tammy Nooskey said Frencheater can be considered a “success story” because he is working through his problems and is a positive example for others.
At Harbour House, residents make their own case plans and set their own goals. They are not forced to “do this or do that” or to change. Thomson said there is a misconception that these types of houses enable people. She said they do everything not to enable people but to help them. Help cold mean hammering out a resume, getting personal identification or connecting with other services in the community.
“That’s why people are successful here,” said Thomson. “People are not telling them how life should work … I think everyone could learn from Virgil.” “In the last seven years, three people have moved out of Harbour House into the community to live independently. Nooskey said the stay at Harbour House can be temporary or permanent housing depending on the individual. There are a few residents that have lived in Harbour House since its doors opened.
Nooskey said there is a need for more affordable housing units in Red Deer. One day the society would like to open a 12-unit home in Red Deer. Housing First projects in Red Deer received a $2-million boost over five-years from the federal government on Friday.
According to Red Deer’s first point-in-time Homeless Count, there were 279 people found to be homeless on Oct. 16, 2010. The next count will be conducted on Oct. 16.
“It’s tough,” said Frencheater. “I am in an environment where everyone is using. I am not using. I wasn’t drinking. I wasn’t even taking pain killers. I just went through it straight. I thought that maybe somebody would see that. But I think I might have changed some minds but I can’t be sure.”
The stint at the hospital was a wake up call for him. Frencheater is back at Harbour House and ready to tackle live’s next challenges. The talented artist painted one of the murals on the buildings near Turning Point at the south end of Little Gaetz Avenue last summer.
He hopes to get a part-time job, work on his art and continue to be there for his family.
“You learn from the bumps on the road,” said Frencheater. “It’s not always an early way to learn but you do learn something each time. You just have to have an open heart and open mind.”
Frencheater said he hopes his story will at least make one person walk a different path.