In early 2011, a man named Jean Francois died. Alone. Initially, he was undiscovered, as he was a recluse and therefore unknown to the people who would have passed him by, from time to time. He was invisible. He lived in the downtown east-side, that most infamous and misunderstood of all Canadian neighbourhoods.
Jean Francois was a hoarder. He was an alcoholic. He had mental illness. He was from France.
After he died, family was finally located and more of his story was revealed. His mother had died and this adult man, who clearly loved her, was never able to cope with life again. He left France and moved to Vancouver to start afresh and flee his grief. Crippled by grief, he was plunged into mental illness and then alcohol abuse. This is often the launching point for a postal code on the downtown east-side. This is where we throw our fellow discarded human beings. His family looked for Jean Francois, but never heard from him again. No one really knew him again, thereafter.
He lived in the Avalon Hotel. Shortly before he died, a kind, young visionary named Jenny Konkin, and her brother, took over the Avalon Hotel. Jean Francois, and the brief time that Jenny knew him, and the desperately lonely circumstances around his death, were the inspiration for what would become Whole Way House.
How could anyone live and die alone? How come no one knew this man? How tragic that that no one knew he died! How terrible, that in his last moments, there was no one by his side, holding his hand as he moved into death. How tragic that there was no one holding his hand through life, while he had it.
These questions birthed Whole Way House as an answer of sorts. Today, Whole Way House is home to 85 residents who are known, loved, and part of a community within their home. They still have mental illnesses and many of them still have addictions. They still have a pittance of a disability pension. They are still abandoned by family members. They still have a postal code on the downtown east-side. They are still treated like garbage by most of Vancouver’s residents. They are still traumatized by life events that most of us have not endured, like extreme neglect, abandonment and abuse, but they are not entirely alone. They have a dignity and a value in the community that Jenny and her brother have created within the home.
Whole Way House provides its residents pet therapy, games nights, weekly trips to Costco for groceries, freshly prepared smoothies once a week, cooking classes from the renowned chefs of The Dirty Apron, weekly shared “Family Dinner”, counseling, and the love and emotional support of Ms. Konkin herself. It is no surprise that in this environment, receiving vital, loving, human connection, many of the residents have overcome addiction or reduced substance abuse, recovered some greater level of mental health and have formed caring bonds with one another.
In early 2016, a man named Ron died. He was not alone. He was known to his community members in Whole Way House. He was loved. He was not invisible. He was not a recluse. Within his community at Whole Way House, he had overcome loneliness, the tendency to isolate, and a great deal of anger.
Ron did struggle with addiction. Addiction was the reason that he had lost his job and family and gained a place on the downtown east-side. Eventually, he came to live at Whole Way House, and by the time he died, he had recovered lost parts of himself, stating that at games nights, he began to feel his real self emerge again. As Ron softened, he regained relationships with his estranged daughters. Ron had become a more whole, functioning person.
Ron’s daughters and house mates held a memorial service for him at Whole Way House, grateful for him and the progress he had made in his journey. Ron was eulogized by a pastor who knew and cared about him, through his own service to Whole Way House, Pastor Fari Ghaem-Maghami, from Coastal Church. Ron’s daughters asked that instead of condolence flowers and cards, donations be made to Whole Way House in his name.
If you would like to learn more about the healing work done at Whole Way House, volunteer or donate, visit : www.wholewayhouse.ca