Oct. 13, 2022

Al Wiebe: I Was a Hidden Homeless Person

Al Wiebe: I Was a Hidden Homeless Person

Al Wiebe went from earning $120k a year and driving a new Mercedes to living for 26 months in a 40-year-old wrecked Mercedes in the back lane behind an auto wrecker. After losing his $120k a year job, Al Wiebe was rocked by the trauma of job loss and suffered from unchecked clinical depression. Al attempted suicide numerous times. On one of his suicide attempts, Al plunged into the Assiniboine River, only to be rescued and finding help from a Doctor at St. Boniface Hospital. Today Al has a message of hope for those who are struggling and dealing with homelessness. He recently led a campaign to name a stretch of Henry Street in Winnipeg “Hope Ally”. Henry Street was the place Al Wiebe passed countless times to different shelters and resource centres when he was homeless. Today Al uses his lived experience as a homeless person to become a 24/7 advocate for the homeless and those in poverty. This episode of Humans on Rights is a glimpse into Al Wiebe’s story.

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Al Wiebe went from earning $120k a year and driving a new Mercedes to living for 26 months in a 40-year-old wrecked Mercedes in the back lane behind an auto wrecker. After losing his $120k a year job, Al Wiebe was rocked by the trauma of job loss and suffered from unchecked clinical depression. Al attempted suicide numerous times. On one of his suicide attempts, Al plunged into the Assiniboine River, only to be rescued and finding help from a Doctor at St. Boniface Hospital. Today Al has a message of hope for those who are struggling and dealing with homelessness. He recently led a campaign to name a stretch of Henry Street in Winnipeg “Hope Ally”. Henry Street was the place Al Wiebe passed countless times to different shelters and resource centres when he was homeless. Today Al uses his lived experience as a homeless person to become a 24/7 advocate for the homeless and those in poverty. This episode of Humans on Rights is a glimpse into Al Wiebe’s story.

See Privacy Policy at https://art19.com/privacy and California Privacy Notice at https://art19.com/privacy#do-not-sell-my-info.

Transcript

This podcast was recorded on the ancestral lands on Treaty One territory, the traditional territory of the Anishnawbe, Cree, Oji Cree, Dakota, and the Dene peoples, and on the homeland of the Métis nation.

This is Humans, On Rights. A podcast advocating for the education of human rights. Here's your host Stuart Murray. 

My guest spent 26 months homeless on the streets of Winnipeg. He lost $150,000 a year income in advertising and could not handle the trauma of that experience as he suffered from unchecked clinical depression. Months later, he was on the streets. He was turned away by the healthcare system as a homeless person. Al Wiebe joins me today. Al, I am thrilled and delighted to have you. You are now a 24/7 advocate for the homelessness and those in poverty. You chair lived Experience Circle in Winnipeg. You're the cochair of Canadian lived experience. Leadership network. You direct a lived, experience led, empathy driven housing program in Winnipeg, Toronto and Vancouver. You're facilitating a Lived Experience Leadership program that promotes persons with lived experience to leadership roles in a three year national project. You host a radio show, Of No Fixed Address, to help educate and advocate for poverty and homelessness, and specialize in community and peer engagement. And I'm thrilled and delighted to have the opportunity to work with you, with the City of Human Rights Committee Council. Al Wiebe, welcome to Humans on Rights.

Thank you. I appreciate that. And I appreciate the invite to be on the show. If human rights don't matter, I've heard in our city, human rights don't matter. If human rights don't matter, what does matter in our world today, right?

Well, for sure Al, and I mean, obviously, shelter is a big human right and something you're very passionate about. So let's go back to the beginning, if you will, and then we can talk about some of the stuff you're doing now. But how did you find yourself homeless?

Well, I was an advertising sales executive for a seven and a half years at the same organization. I love my job and I was really good at it. I work six and a half hours a day for that kind of money. And my boss always told me, well, if you work 8 hours a day, how much work could you make? Well, I'm quite happy with what I make, but I overheard a conversation in May of 2009. The conversation went like this while we're leaving Al Go on this date. So I circled November 6 on my calendar, which was the last day of my selling cycle for 2009.

How old were you at that time?

I was 55 years old at that time, and that was the problem. I was not part of the generation coming up, and the boys are buying into the company one of their friends, or they actually buying several of their friends to replace me because that was the direction they wanted to go in, and there was nothing I could do about it. Come October, they gave me a month to get my work done for the cycle. And November 7 or November 6, I walked out of the door for the last time.

So you sort of knew it was coming. But of course, when it happens, it's a surprise.

It was still a shock when they came to me in October, so just let me go now. But now they need my ability to finish up the year. It was a shocking I've been suffering from clinical depression and anxiety and unchecked and unmedicated. I was always strong enough in my past life to handle it, so I thought I could handle it now. But this one really took its toll on me because my workplace colleagues and my family was out of the problems or my sister was a tuan and we have a communication, and so I was kind of in isolation and I had no support, and that creates a problem.

So, Al, were you born in Winnipeg?

I was born in Winnipeg, and I only spent four years outside of Winnipeg when I moved to Vancouver in the ladies early 90s.

Were you educated here in Winnipeg?

Yes, I had a scholarship to go to Carlton because I was going to become a journalist or writer, and we ended up getting pregnant at 17, and that changed the script. And I ended up purchasing my dad's housing exterior business instead. He was a pastor and wanted to go full time into the ministry and so I picked up the business and did that for a dozen years. And the ironic thing is, today I write my work published many times.

So you've eventually become a writer?

Yes, absolutely.

So in that business, you were obviously well paid, you had a family?

No, I didn't. I was single.

Oh, you're single. Okay. So did you ever know anybody or see people on the streets? And were you ever at that point wondering about these people that seem to be homeless now?

You know what? At that point in time, it didn't even cross my radar. Not at all. Of course, occasionally, sure, you'd see somebody, right? But I just wouldn't give them a thought, not one thought, because it's not my business. Right. And that was my attitude my whole life at that point. I was becoming as good a sales rep as I could be and make lots of money.

So you are on the streets for 26 months, right?

Maybe a little active. Maybe 28.

28, okay, so what did you do during those 28 months?

Well, the whole thing is that I ended up walking away from my apartment and moved into the Cinnamon going on the park and left my apartment, complete with all its furniture, about ten grand with the furniture in the apartment, and just walked away from it. I was becoming very suicidal and I ended up going into Gordon in the park for about a month and a half. And this was after I spent about $30,000 on a cross country trip trying to spend my way out of my depression, and I ended up staying in the park for about a month and a half. And I was becoming suicidal, but I was trying to figure out, how am I going to do this? I didn't want to cut my wrist, I hate blood. I didn't want to do anything that really, really hurt. So I said, okay, let's let's try hypothermia. The winter of 2010 was really, really cold, much like last year. A lot of winter, a lot of nights between mine's 30 miles, 40. And so I figured, easy trip. When I left my apartment, I left with two sets of clothes, two sets of shoes, overcoat a suit jacket, tie, two blankets and pills, and that was it. And when I walked out of the Gordon, I left with the same. And I'd eaten in a place called Mama Foes, which is on the corner of Mcphilliam, or close to McPhillips and William. And in the back of that restaurant, I'd seen about 13 cars that they worked at the company called Diazada used for parts, and one of those was the 64 Mercedes Benz. And I used to drive a Mercedes six months prior to I let my Mercedes go because they knew it was going to lose my job. But I was driving a nice ride, and it was nice to have a symbol, because that's where I was in those days. And so I crashed in a 64 Mercedes in the back alley against the wall of Diazardo, in front of later that sunrooflet, and the front window was broken. And leather seats are not great when you have to live in them in wintertime when it's hard and cold, and in summertime they're hot and sticky, right? And I spent 14 and a half months in that car.

Did people know you were living there, Al?

No, they didn't. And that was one of the issues. I had to leave at seven in the morning when they opened door before seven when they opened. That could only come back after seven at night when they closed, because I did not want them to come in and see my meter belongings. My life was my clothes and my blankets, right? I did not want them to see those things in the car. That was my life. Right. And the most trauma I faced every day was leaving that car and leaving all those things in the car and hoping that somebody wouldn't find them if they came looking for parts in the car.

So when you left that car, knowing that you would be gone for somewhere between twelve and 14 hours, I mean, obviously over the course of 28 months there's, every day you do something different. But what would be a typical day for Elweeb, who is homeless at that point?

If I was going to wash up that particular day and wanted to do that between the McDonald's and the Burger King on the corner of MCPH Notre Dame as well as the Salisbury House which was there at that point in time. I rotate every day and wash up and when I felt like shaving, I shave. And once every couple of weeks I could wash my clothes in the same mushrooms and occasionally I have to fill my clothes and toilet in the cubicle just because somebody is coming in. I didn't want to see me wash my clothes. But I would walk around collecting beer cans for a good portion of those 12 hours and I would also collect drivethrough change from the Burger King McDonald's and there's a drive through Tim's on the corner there as well and I made money that way and collecting beer cans. It was really tired. It's really tiring day when you have to walk around all day long. And I was one of those that did not use a coffee table and did not use Waste Army, did not use Main Street Project or Lighthouse Mission, did not use any of the service. I was too proud. I made 150 years. I don't need those things. So I made my money and existed on where they collected in beer cans and drythuches. Also right next to the Health Sciences Center. The University of Manchester Medical billionaire. The Bodies Center is there and on the second floor of the Mesome floor at that point in time they had roughly 60 comfy chairs and footstools and the doctors and nursing students would go in there and put their feet up and it was changed out of their pockets and the change would fall in between the cushions and I go dig my fingers in there and hands in there and click change. That was between collecting beer cans and driving through change and finding change between the seats every day. That would take up a good portion of my day. And the other times I would try to find a place to rest and find something cheap to eat. Either I go put my change and buy a coffee at Gyms or at McDonald's and $0.88 seniors coffee and I hang out as long as I could and go to another place to hang out as long as I could before they kick me out, right? And I tried to look presentable every single day and not look like other homeless folks, right? So they wouldn't kick me out and I just nursed my coffee and I go down to the Quest down here downtown in the basement and have a coffee in the bar and stay there as long as I could and just find places to crash. But I wouldn't use the area downtown. I did not want to be like those people.

So Al, one of the things you obviously have to make sure as you say, you want to be presentable. You don't want to look like a regular, you need to move around a fair bit so that they don't want to sort of kick you out. Did you ever get involved in alcohol or drugs at that point? No.

You know, I'm really, really fortunate. Thanks for asking that question, because it's important. If I had had an addiction out there, I would not have made it. You know, I see people that have addiction out there on the street and I just wonder, how are you doing? You gotta be awful strong to have an addiction and still make it. But then a lot of people turn to addiction to escape the street as well, mentally. Right. Because it's a tough place and there's so much trauma. I didn't do that. I was lucky.

How did you eventually get to the position that you started to get back on your feet?

Yeah, it's a good story, and it plays into how I present my training day. It plays a big part in that because people have to know. One of the things that people hang on to is a solitary thread, and that thread is hope. And the bottom of the thread is a word called hope. And my thread was really, really afraid. I went up to Health Sciences and it was two blocks up on William, and they rejected me retweet and could not see the fact that this homeless person was in Suicide Nation. After the third time, I jumped into the Sunburn River, and from there I went to Miscordia and I got the same rough treatment. And finally I ended up getting help at the same school where a doctor saw through the homeless facade and saw that there was a real person underneath and just didn't see the homeless person that was out for a handout. Right. Just saving my life and being that angel of mercy is what I called her. And the engine that drove me forward, I went into the hospital and I knew it was a different place. The trails nurse had security followed me all over the place when I went there.

Is this at St. Bonavis Hospital?

Yes. Right. And I took a bus on two bridges. I clicked enough change to take a bus on those two bridges so I wouldn't jump off if I walked over. But she had me followed around. And after 24 hours, six minutes, I was finally seen by a doctor in the room with this puts out patients, and here's the key to everything. He said to me, al, you've been here, you've been here. That couldn't help you, wouldn't help you, or did not want to help you, but today I'm going to help you. It's like you've lost your identity, and it's like you've fallen off the edge of the world and you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are, and you don't know how to help yourself. But today I'm going to help you. And she made a pulling motion on a rope. And I still see that burns in my memory today. And she pulled me into the spaceship and out of harm's way. But starting today, your life is going to change. You're going to become better, you're going to become stronger. Think about that last one for a second. You're going to become the person you always wanted to be. Who says that? Those are such enormous words. And she said, It's not going to happen today, it's not going to happen tomorrow, it's not going to happen next year, not even going to happen in two years time. You're going to get there. He said, I believe in you, but you have to believe in you. And I see you doing things for people that are in exactly your position here today, somewhere down the line and on the floor. And I started crying and I couldn't stop because he was somebody who was going to help me. And I ended up going to Victoria Hospital. And she said that instead of kicking me out, she actually looked around the city for a psych ward psychiatrist and she found one in Victoria Hospital. I stayed there for a month. The first stage recovery. Here's another important fact. When I got there, I couldn't eat, I couldn't talk. I couldn't even get two thoughts together because of the trauma was coming down. The trauma of everything was hitting me really hard. But after I could, I started thinking, someday I'm going to talk to the powers that be at the Windfield Regional Health Authority about the troubles I had in the emergency rooms and also the doctor at St. Bee. But how is that going to happen here? It was a messed up homeless person, right? With the myriad of psychological problems, psychiatric problems that I wouldn't be able to overcome any time soon. But the doctor there said to the Salvation Army, after a month and the first stage of America, he did not want to be on the streets again. He wanted me to be around people and get three squares a day. But living in a Salvation Army is still living homeless, right? It's sheltered and it's worse than being on the street because I can't be institutionalized. But the smell of urine and solvents in the elevator and the jostling line for food, the fights, everything just I hated it there. They do wonderful work, just not for this cowboy. I can't be institutionalized. But while I was there, I was interviewed for the Ad Holmes, a swap program, which was $110,000,000 housing research for a homeless research program put on by the federal government. And we're in Manitoba on Wednesday. 500 people got interviewed, 250 people got apartments, and 250 people did not get apartments. But when they pushed the button and random selection, they randomly unselected me, did not select me. I ended up spending extra four and a half months in Salvation Army because I wasn't selected from the computer. And gallery or someplace, and that was really puz about the Adam satellite program. Not only did they reject me, but I had to spend extra four and a half months in Salvation because they couldn't find an apartment because they were taking up all the apartments up there. Finally ended up getting an apartment and getting out.

So how did you finally find to get an apartment? How did that happen?

It was tough, and I did it all on my own and ended up on Spencer. Across from University went big, and across from an organization called Momoa, which is an indigenous organization in Wings that does wonderful work. And I saw people milling around on the deck, but it took a lot of work to find that apartment. And then me being homeless, I was lucky that they didn't discriminate against me because I was homeless. They actually gave me an apartment, but I saw these people milling around at this big hull greenhouse on the corner, and I said, let's go see if they need some volunteers. I spent the next 28 months of volunteering, and I was a goto guy because I was almost right across the street. And when somebody didn't show up, as you know, volunteers don't always show up. I was called in every single day, five days a week, pretty much, right. But the great thing about that was, and here's the key point as well, they allowed me to take 18 week course here. It was not totally confidently, and my duty wasn't there. Here I was, I got to an 18 week course of EIA. I got through nonviolent crisis intervention, suicide prevention assist, I've got my food hunters, got my first aid, CPR, tons of workshops and courses. And one of the greatest casualties of homelessness is less of self respect, dignity, self confidence, all that stuff. What those courses did was it started building me up. I could open the cover door and put in one another one until my cover door was full. And I started feeling like a human being again. And I said, Just leave me somewhere, I just don't know where. Then one day they asked me to go be a drop in that Wechy Wind, which is Armor Mom Wake, which was the at home safe suit arm of Mama Wake, the same program that rejected me at Salvation Army and forced me to stay in Salvation for another five months. I ended up going to Momaway and being the dropping cook for about 30 people every Thursday. And I said to the director, I can do more than this, and I got all these courses and everything. I'm going to do this, try to get people into mental health, and we need extra housing. So I did that. And then somebody quit. An intensive case manager quit, and there it was. She said to me, would you like to be an intensive case manager? So, first job after five years, pretty much two and a half years of homelessness, two and a half years on the street in your recovery surgery. And she asked me do I want to become an intensive case management, keeping people in their housing? My job was to keep people in their housing and if they got kicked out, relocate them.

And that would be a paid job, right?

That was a paid job, right. I moved here for three months and then I got this. And this is my first paid job. Certainly it wasn't about money or advertising. It was about saving people, getting people to stay in their housing and supporting them to do that. 28 months after I see these people, I looked down, I saw twelve people from Southeast Army that NU. And I said, Can I have these guys? And my director said sure. So two and a half years later I'm knocking on the door and I'm saying, by the way, I'm Ted case manager. The last time they saw me was at Salvation Army standing up on the sidewalk the same as I'm in line for food. And they knew that the thing was it was a beautiful thing because it's called lived experience. They realized that I'd been in their shoes. They knew that before Salvation Army was on the street, they knew where I was, the Salvation Army with them. And what they did is they built that trust factor up to able to get them to do things that the other case managers wouldn't put their bachelor's work and their MAS because they trusted me. I knew, they knew that I'd been in their shoes and I was able to get people to move forward and do things that others weren't. And today I'm just the hugest advocate for LUTH experience and what we bring to them. This is what I train on. Part of what I train on is that lived experience aspect of things. But I ended up going from there to the University of Matt sowa University, one of big story and end up being there for over two years during the second phase of the Home Chasewa program. And this is also a paid position. And what I did there was interview people. First of all, the 250 that did not get apartments in the study, which I was one, only 10% of the 250 got out. I was one of 25 people to get out and I was one of the fortunate ones. And out of the entire 500 after we finished those, we interviewed the others. And my job was as a person of a lived experience was to sit at the table with the masters researcher and the person that we found on the street to bring in for an interview and be a liaison because it's comfort with the lived experience. So my job was to be that buffer between the learned person and the homeless person and raise the comfort levels. And I spent 28 months in that. But we lost 10% of the 500 summer houses. Some are homeless. It's very, very real, and it follows you. And they always say, for every one year you spend, you lose seven years of your life. And I feel fortunate. I'm lucky to be alive today. I think I may be overstayed my welcome.

You obviously have got yourself into a position where the lived experience, as you say, is kind of the crux of what allows you to be a caseworker, be an advocate, an educator, all the things that you're doing now. I wanted to just sort of pause for a second and make reference to something that you started in the year 2017, which you started a memorial service for those homeless people who had perished that particular year. This is something you've done on an annual basis. Why was that important for you to do that?

I was in London in 2016, and I saw the service being held there, the same type of service. And I said, Why don't we all have this in winterfell? It's so important. I couldn't believe that nobody ever come up with this in Winnipeg. Right? It just shows our level of respect for the wholeness. Right. So, anyway, I brought it back, and you ask, Why is it important? It's really important because so many people die, and they don't get obituaries. They get nothing. They are dead and gone, and that is it. And they become a statistic, and it's so important that they get remembered. And every year I have a memorial service. First year was at the 2017 Conference for the Canadian Homelessness down to commencement center. And since then, it's been in Hope Valley, in between the Bell Hotel and 650 Main Street. It's important that we remember them as people. And during our service, I asked if there's anybody in the audience that day from the shelters who has a memory or who has had someone that's passed away in the past year. And I get them to relay their stories. And we need to keep this as real as possible because there's so much disconnect between the folks on the street and people dying in vain if we don't honor their memories and even honor the people that are surviving them. So it's really important that we do that just so they're not remembered as statistics, but names and people. We go into the shelters and we get people to put up names on board shelters. We bring those names to the memorial service and read them out loud.

So, Al, let me just ask you, with your experience and what you have lived through and what you see going on today, can we prevent homelessness, in your opinion?

Yes, we have ways of preventing homelessness. We have prevention policies in place for people that are housed to prevent them from becoming homeless. We have several, say, rent banks, like members of a nonprofit housing association where I'm speaking to about that conference, and also Aboriginal Health and Wellness. Okay, here's the issue. During COVID, there was criticism sent out, and there was also a moratorium on rent eviction during COVID. And what happened was people use curb for other things rather than paying rents. And when the moratorium was up, people owed thousands of dollars in rent because they hadn't paid anything. And so funding was created at that point in time to prevent these people from getting kicked out and increasing the numbers on the street. But the numbers increased anyways, and their rent was paid in a number of cases, and those programs are still in place. As far as addictions and things are concerned, we need to educate more people. That's probably the only way. And maintain more contact with people who are on the edge and let people know that there are programs out there for them before they become homeless, before they get kicked out on the street. And many people end up on street. I've been part of the homeless counterpart time count for several different times, and many of the problems are from mental health. And we need people to get mental health help and families, because families can't deal with it a lot of times, right? And addictions, we need people to be aware of where they can go for help, for addictions, if they're willing to. And so there are programs in place, we need to educate people about those programs to lessen the number of people coming on the street. Yeah, we can do that.

Yeah. And then let me just give you a couple of comments just before we move to sort of close off this conversation. A lot of times people will say Housing First, if you really want to deal with homeless people, and we see them in our bus shelters around the city, we see them on the riverbanks, housing first. What's your feeling about that concept?

Well, yes, for me personally, because adults as well with the Housing First program, and I feel you can't just put people in housing. It doesn't work, you know, to help other people and destroy their apartments and get kicked out. And secondly, they won't stay in because they're not used to the responsibility. Welfare doesn't pay enough, and they can't pay for food and shelter at the same time. So they need supports. And the Adams Wells program proved that it's cheaper by 22 and a half percent to house people and let them be seen once or twice a week with support by a case manager, that is, to leave them on the streets. It's 22 and a half percent even to give them supports, have a case manager work with them all the time. I think it's a really good program. You just can't say, here you go, here's your apartment. And I would say we can't end homelessness because I get in trouble for that, but that's okay because the government doesn't have enough money. And all three levels of government have to work together and they don't do that on a regular basis either. You need that private sector to contribute to building low rental housing, not affordable housing, but housing geared to income, right, or low income housing. And let's say we had all the money in the world right now I sit on the waste of the Community Advisory Board and we just get dribbles and drafts right now from the federal government. Not enough to really make a debt just to stay even. But if we did have all the money in the world, we wouldn't have enough people to support and create a Housing First program and support everybody. So yes, Housing First is a really good program because of land supports and helps people stay in their housing. And we call it housing first. Now. But it's not that home swap program anymore, but it's a lot of our programs now. We're built on that as community advisory. We support organizations that use the Housing First program because it's the best way to keep people in housing.

So if there was somebody listening and said how can I help? What would you say to them?

I would say that you can never do too little, you can never do too much. Number one, if you're one of these people, people that drive the bridge or Israeli bridge and see somebody in California and one, well, you're not the kind of people that would say what can I do to help anyway? But what you can do to help is a really good question. There are many shelters that need help, but during the summer, extreme weather both in summer and in winter. Not just in winter, but it's the summer too, when you get temperatures get up to plus 35, plus 40. I'll tell you what, call me and we'll go out and do some one on one with people on the street. You know, homeless folks are called invisible people because people ignore them, right? But my thing is acknowledge everybody on the street that you see with a handout. You don't have to give them anything, but acknowledge them as people. And there's something really powerful in doing that and the powers that it makes them think that yes, I'm important not to speak to because they don't think of themselves as very high regard. So it's really important to contribute to the shelves, shelters, get a lot of money and talk to a person like me because I do run around small housing place in the city and you know, there's people that you can see. You don't have to speak much, you don't have to do much, just, you know, say hello. You just have to be somebody that person can lean on sometimes, right? They don't have to do much, but people need that contact for sure.

You just have to recognize people as human beings. So Al, listen, I'm just about running out of time here. So one of the things that I'll make sure we do in the episode is, you know, make reference to some of the places where people are listening. They can go to your website, they can get in touch with you personally, they can learn from you.

Yes, you can find me on Facebook under Al Wiebe and I'll friend you. You can find me on LinkedIn under Al Wiebe as well.

Thank you so much. Thank you so much. Al Wiebe, you host a radio show, Of No Fixed Address, to help educate and advocate for poverty and homelessness. Of No Fixed Address. Thank you so much for sharing your story today. 

Humans on Rights is recorded and hosted by Stuart Murray. Social media marketing by the creative team at Full Current in Winnipeg. Thanks also to Trixie Maebetuan. Music by Doug Edmond. For more, go to HumanRightsHub.ca. Produced and distributed by the Sound Off Media Company.