Our First Homeless Friend: In Memory of Irvin

I will never forget his sparkling eyes, his soothing melodies or the precious gift he left me.  Irvin Wickens is the first homeless man I got to know on a personal level.  In seconds, he shifted my perception of what homelessness is about, and inspired my students and I to dig deeper and go Beyond HELLO.  Here’s the story of how we first met Irvin.

In November of 2009, a church in Port Moody approached our school and asked if we could advertise a volunteer opportunity for our students to work in the local homeless shelter, providing dinner and conversation. The response was overwhelming and we had over 100 students wishing to participate. We committed to two shifts per week, where I would volunteer with 6-10 students and staff.

Our first night at the shelter was November 13, 2009. It was a cold, wet, rainy night where we served chili and buns to provide some warmth to the twelve clients at the shelter. As we served dessert, a student and I sat down beside Irvin. Irvin had the stereotypical image of a homeless man: his clothes were worn and dirty, his hair unruly, and he was unshaven. Yet beyond that his eyes sparkled, and he offered kindness and gratitude as we engaged in conversation. Irvin told us that it was his mom’s birthday. I asked if he had had an opportunity to call her. He told me no, as his mom had passed away years ago. He also shared that he had lost two sisters. Assuming they had died recently I asked him when they had passed away. Irvin then began a story I will never forget…. he spoke of his childhood in Milwaukee, and a horrific night when he was just six years old. Living in poverty, with a single mom and three siblings, he awoke to find their house on fire. Irvin woke one sister who shared a room with him. He then ran across the hall to try and get to the room his other two sisters shared. The fire blocked the entrance so he ran to wake his mom. He shared his memory of his mom running into the fire trying to save her daughters. He then recalls the image of his mom emerging from the house covered in burns and overcome with grief, as she whispered ‘they are gone’. In that moment, Irvin lost a 3 year old and 8 year old sister. Fifty years later, this image has not faded.  It is forever burned into his brain, overshadowing a life of pain and tragedy.   Trying to hold back my own tears I told Irvin he was a hero for saving his mom and one sister. He smiled in appreciation but his face told me it was not enough – the pain was still too raw.  He then politely excused himself to go for a cigarette and I excused myself to tidy up the dishes. In that instant, Irvin taught me that homelessness is not caused by addiction, but rather by trauma and an inability to move forward.

As I waited with our students for parents to pick them up that evening, one student who had heard Irvin’s story approached me and told me that he had been struggling for months with the news of his parents’ divorce. After hearing Irvin’s story, he realized he still had two parents that loved him and he needed to stop feeling sorry for himself as his problems were minimal compared to Irvin’s.  It was the first time I noticed the impact our work was having on my students. I realized we were not just helping the homeless – they were helping us.

For the next year, we enjoyed our weekly visits with Irvin. His eyes would sparkle as he would speak of his adventures in life, and on a good night he would break out in song and amaze our students with his beautiful voice. Tears would roll down his face as he would sing Eric Clapton’s ‘Beautiful Tonight’. When he finished his dessert, and left the table, he would always shout out with enthusiasm “Cowboy Up!”  He often wore a Cowboy hat – and to the others who lived in the Poco trail, Irvin was their cowboy.  “Cowboy UP!” meant much more than it’s literal meaning – it signified Irvin’s strength to stay positive and keep going.

In late March 2010, I had a great conversation with Irivn about what he would do if he won the lottery. He spoke of all the charities he would help as he appreciated the help he had received from others and he wanted to pay it back. On our final evening at the shelter I approached Irvin and told him I had a gift for him. I gave him a lottery ticket and told him I hoped his luck would change. I thanked him for sharing his story and for making such a difference with our students. Irvin reached in his pocket and told me he had a gift for me as well. Not knowing what to expect from the pocket of a homeless man, I remember feeling nervous about what could possibly come from his pocket. When he unfolded his hand, he held out a small brown rock. He told me that the year before the shelter opened, he was living under a bridge in Port Coquitlam. Some middle school students had approached him with their teacher and offered him some cookies. With the cookies, they had also given him the rock, and told him it was a friendship rock. They asked him to keep it in his pocket, and to remember each time he felt it, that the community cares about him. Irvin told me the lottery ticket would replace the rock, and he asked me to take the rock, and put it in my pocket, always remembering that he cares about us. Eight months later, Irvin passed away from his addictions. His rock is my favourite gift.  I take it with me everywhere I go and always share his story when speaking about Beyond HELLO.  Irvin is no longer with us but his message of compassion, love and a need for understanding stays with us.  He shifted my understanding of homelessness.  His sparkling eyes continue to inspire me and guide our work with Beyond HELLO.  His story, and his rock, will be with me forever.

In loving memory of Irvin Wickens.   “Cowboy Up!”

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