Diane Marlatt came to Victoria for the first time to visit her new friend Derry with whom she already shared a bond as thick as blood.
Marlatt didn’t make the trip from Welland, Ont., to relive fond childhood memories with her once-close sibling. And she wasn’t set on reconnecting with the younger brother who used to startle her at dinner so he could steal her food. She was here to meet “Derry,” the man who was once Gary, the brother she grew up with in Ontario and who she thought was was no longer alive.
Marlatt hadn’t seen or heard any trace of Gary for 25 years – until two Good Samaritans went on a mission to uncover clues from his past to try to help him provide for his future.
The Saanich News first wrote about Derry last June when two women (who have asked to remain anonymous) took it upon themselves to uncover his identity and secure government funding for him. Derry is a soft-spoken, 64-year-old who lived on the street for at least 12 years, regularly travelling between Tim Hortons locations across Greater Victoria. His gentle nature and unwillingness to accept help from those he crossed paths with earned him a spot in the hearts of many. Yet his then-untreated mental illness and independence did not suggest a bright future.
He didn’t know his birth name and hadn’t worn shoes on his blackened feet for years when the two women stepped up. They called the Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team, a joint project between the province and the Vancouver Island Health Authority. Through the outreach, he was assessed at the Eric Martin Pavilion, treated and placed in 24-hour monitored housing.
Derry was finally inside. The only catch: permanent housing is next to impossible to secure without any personal information.
Building on one of the few clues Derry provided from his past – that he may have been from Welland – a copy of the article that ran in the News was sent to a newspaper in the Niagara region. Just two days after a small story about Derry was published, his sister learned her brother was not only alive, but that he’d been embraced by a circle of people who cared for him.
Marlatt received the news story via email, clicked on the photo and cried when she recognized her brother’s icy blue eyes and wooly beard. By the time Marlatt and her siblings – Derry is one of seven – came down from the knowledge that their brother was alive, his team of caregivers in Greater Victoria had verified who he was and had found him permanent housing.
Back in Victoria, dozens of people wrote in to share memories of Derry and to wish him well. An artist had photographed him. Mothers stopped with their children to visit him. An ex-girlfriend from 20 years ago came forward.
Yet because Derry was now housed, he no longer visited his favourite haunts and those he saw regularly began to worry. His two angels, as Marlatt calls them – the most outspoken of whom, we’ll give the pseudonym Linda – relayed the news to Derry’s Tim Horton’s buddies across town. One burly man outside of Tim Hortons in Royal Oak burst into tears at the knowledge of Derry’s change in fortune, Linda said.
Derry, who often acts child-like in nature, has always expressed a connection with Linda.
“You remind me of my sister,” Derry once said.
“Is she beautiful?” Linda asked.
“Moderately,” Derry said.
To prevent overwhelming Derry with the news, on Aug. 2, Linda introduced Marlatt as a friend.
“You remind me of someone I know from Welland,” Derry said during their initial meeting, unable to place her as his sister. “You have really strong hands.”
“I was shocked,” Marlatt said, showing off her gardener’s hands.
After their second meeting, Derry gave her a hug and patted her on the back.
With eyes filed with tears, Marlatt explains her acceptance that the brother she used to know is gone. He had travelled between Vancouver, where their mother lived, and Welland for years. His last visit home was some 25 years ago.
“He’s a new man,” she said. “He’s a West Coast man. He’s happy and healthy and I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Though there are some things time hasn’t erased: “He’s always been sweet, gentle and a prankster,” Marlatt added.
Characters like her brother are to be enjoyed, not pitied by society, she said.
For Linda, that means taking the time to engage in conversation with someone who might otherwise be overlooked.
“Some people are so reserved,” Marlatt said. “They have good hearts, but they don’t do anything about it.
She calls Victoria a metropolitan area with country folks. Her gratitude extends beyond Linda to a team of doctors, psychiatrists, and social workers who provided her brother with a high level of care in a time when access to mental health resources can be limited.
Turning to the media was not a first choice for Linda, a self-described rebel with a cause. She defied his social workers’ requests to maintain total privacy on her hunt for Derry’s past. It’s a decision she doesn’t regret.
“It was his gentle spirit, that ‘I’m OK, I don’t need anything and I would never hurt anyone’ that made me want to help him. I looked in his eyes and he had me,” Linda said. “We never gave up.”
Did you know?
• The Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) Teams are multidisciplinary teams and typically include a psychiatric physician, psychologist, psychiatric nurse, case manager and social workers. One of the ACT teams – the Victoria Integrated Community Outreach Team – includes staff from the Victoria police, a social development income assistance worker and a probation officer. These resources are used by all four ACT Teams.
The teams all facilitate housing and other health services for individuals on the streets and in institutions who need mental health and addictions supports.
• If a homeless person appears to be very mentally ill, you should call the police to ensure the person, as well as the public, is protected. If the illness is less severe and the person has access to a telephone, they could call the Vancouver Island Crisis Line at 1-888-494-3888.