Red and a small group moved off the street and into a make-shift camp in 2014.

Red and a small group moved off the street and into a make-shift camp in 2014.

The long way home

The first in series, introducing readers to some of the people living on the streets of Chilliwack, and those working to help them.

Red died a couple months ago.

You probably didn’t know him, because he preferred to stay out of sight and honestly, he didn’t want to know you.

Red didn’t like people much, which is why he lived the way he lived.

If you ever saw Red, you probably crossed the street to avoid him. Red was the sort to make others uncomfortable because he was dirty and his clothes were dirty and he had a scraggly beard and so people gave him weird looks and a wide berth.

As long as no one opened their mouths to say what they were thinking, he was fine with it, because all he wanted was to be left alone.

And that’s why he ended up living in a forest until he died, at age 71, of congestive heart failure.

Few people know, or want to know, about the homeless camp that Red called home. But if you know where to look, you’ll find it.

There’s a farm field on Yale Road West, on your right as you drive toward the Evans Road roundabout.

That field is bordered on the left by trees, and nestled among those trees is the place where Red chose to spend the last months of his life.

It is, as you’d expect, a mess.

Last fall, after a few days of rain, the mud was nearly ankle deep. Sitting among some bushes on the right of the carved out pathway that leads into the camp was a jade-green bathtub, absurdly out of place.

Nailed to a nearby tree was a sign with a skeleton’s head delivering an ominous warning, ‘Think twice about stealing asshole.’

And in a ramshackle shack made of cardboard, sheet metal and whatever else he could find, Red talked about how he ended up there.

“I wanted to get out of the downtown area,” he said.

As rain rapped down on the plastic sheet covering his eight by eight foot room, Red said he’d grown tired of being treated like a criminal everywhere he went.

“Walking down the street a cop would stop me and ask a whole bunch of questions, questions you couldn’t answer, and if you could answer them you wouldn’t answer them,” he said. “‘What about this guy? What about that guy? Did you see this? Did you see that?’

“When you live on the street you don’t see nothing. I don’t care if you walk right into the middle of a bank robbery, you didn’t see a thing. All it’s going to do is get you trouble, so why bother?”

“Out here we don’t have people looking down on us like we have three heads and we’re going to steal their children. There’s none of that.”

Red and a small group moved into the bush in May of 2014 and built the camp little by little.

“By August we were all set up and out here nobody bothered us,” he said. “The whole idea was to get under the radar and stay quiet.”

Red spent decades as a gainfully employed man working in oil fields around the world. U2 sang about seeing oil fields at first light. Red actually did it, spending two years in Iran and 21 in Libya.

The man had stories to tell.

Saskatchewan born and raised, one of the few personal touches in his space was a newspaper clipping of Kent Austin, the man who quarterbacked and coached his beloved Canadian Football League Roughriders to Grey Cup championships in 1989 and 2007.

Red was also a ‘reading nut.’

On the sawed-off tree stump doubling as a table sat a copy of ‘Deviance and Social Control’ by Linda Bell Deutschmann, with a crinkled page dog-eared to mark his spot.

“It’s a little heady,” he chuckled. “But it’s a good read and these books are easy to get because people just throw them away.”

“I don’t throw much away.”

Other than the occasional coffee run to McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s, or the occasional shopping foray to Wal-Mart, Red was happy to stay where he was.

When a wind storm felled several trees around him last fall, he enlisted the aid of a friend and a chain-saw and constructed a log cabin. It had sturdy walls and a wood-burning stove venting to the outside. Red bought a solar-panel from Home Depot to stick on the roof.

“We had all these logs and trees laying all over the place and what are you going to do with all of that?” he said. “Might as well do something so we banged this place together.”

“Took five days.”

If Red was a pariah to the outside world, he was a respected leader in this one and everyone who knew about the camp knew he was the guy in charge.

Even if he denied it.

“Nah, Red’s not the leader,” he said. “I don’t have nothing to do with being any kind of leader. I think we’re all adults. We can lead ourselves.”

The greatest threat to Red’s peaceful existence came not from without but within.

Not more than 150 paces away in another clearing, younger people set up a another camp, and the two groups clashed.

The newcomers were more… criminally inclined, and a rash of property crimes, bike thefts and shop-lifting brought heat down on Red and his camp.

“The one guy comes out here and tries to sell us stuff all the time,” he explained. “He comes right from Wal-Mart with a duffel bag full of stuff. Stole it all. None of us buy his junk, that I know of anyways.”

If there was a topic that got him riled up, this was it.

“Everyone thinks we’re a bunch of bums and thieves and dope fiends and shit like that, and it’s not that way at all,” he insisted. “All we have to do is use our head and people will leave us alone and we proved it because we’re out here peaceful.”

“But those guys up there, the police are coming every other day.”

“I’m not going in there with a stick or something. All you can do is try to tell the guys up front to behave themselves. But… their way.”

You had to take him at his word when Red insisted he never resorted to thievery.

“If it belonged to somebody it belonged to somebody and I always left it alone,” he said. “I don’t even know how to steal and I’m shocked the way people do.”

“We’ve got to live here so leave the people alone. If you’re going to steal something, do it in Abbotsford and not in your own neighborhood. That’s stupid.”

If you’re left with the impression that Red was a noble fellow of high moral fibre, he wasn’t.

He’d admit that and tell you he did a lot of stupid things when he was a younger man.

All those years and all that money earned in the oil field, and the reason Red ended his life as a $750-per-month pensioner was because he lived a life beyond his means and shot a lot of his income into his arm.

“I was on heroin for years and I never had a problem supplying my habit because I earned a good living my whole life,” he admitted. “I didn’t even know I was a junkie until I was 60 years old probably. I went through life stumbling along with a responsible job and doing OK.”

“I was married and my wife didn’t even know I was an addict. Maybe if I’d stayed married and a family man…”

Red said he kicked heroin when he moved into the camp, not because he wanted to but because he figured he had to.

He couldn’t afford it.

“I come out here and I had enough on me to last a few days and I wasn’t even sure I was going to stay out here,” he said. “When I decided I was going to stay I thought, ‘Boy, this is no place for a junkie.’ So I laid over there and cold-turkeyed it.”

“It was a lot of throwing up and a few days of hell but actually, all my problems came after I quit.”

“I was never sick, never even had a headache hardly. All of a sudden I kick the habit and everything in the world is beating on me.”

Addicts forever live under the threat of relapse, sinking back into old habits.

All those aches and pains that Red started feeling after he quit, he thought about how they’d go away if he shot up again.

“If I got thinking about it, with heroin I wouldn’t be going through all this nonsense, but I’d never let my head get back into that space,” he said. “I’ll put up with it until the day I die. If I die tomorrow, it’s OK by me, but I’m not going use. I just can’t. As soon as I use I’m done. I know that.”

Red has three kids.

They never knew he was living the way he did, but he thought they’d understand, because they “knew how he was.”

The one person who wouldn’t have been OK with it is the one person who was on his mind near the end, his 93-year-old mother.

“We’re all getting old,” he said. “I’m going to have to get home one of these days.”