I don’t know that I ever knew his name, but I knew his face as one of the regulars you would see on the streets of Fort McMurray. Albert was someone I encountered a couple of times, a gentle soul who never asked for a thing, always had a smile and always spoke softly to me. Albertahas been described as homeless, which troubles me as while Albert did not live in a house and therefore was technically homeless he was not without a home.You see some time ago I was at the Safeway downtown with my dog. I had gone inside and gotten some Starbucks and was sitting in the sunshine, enjoying an unexpectedly warm spring day. Two individuals walked by and commented on the dog, both of them stopping to try to get my dog, a nervous creature, to warm up to them, and both shared that they had once owned dogs, too. I realize now that one of them was Albert.
The other one, whose name I also do not know, asked if I had any change. Albert just smiled but didn’t say a thing. I said I had none – the truth as I rarely carry cash – but I offered to go inside to buy them a cold drink since the day was so warm. The one who asked for change asked then for a Pepsi, but as I recall Albert asked for a warm drink instead, hot chocolate or coffee, I don’t recall which, and I realized that despite the warm day he was shivering, likely as a result of sleeping rough outdoors the night before and never really warming up. I went inside, leaving my dog tied up beside them while they tried to convince her they were safe, and purchased their drinks. When I returned I said they didn’t have to sit with me but that I would welcome their company, and they laughed and said they guessed they could spare a couple of minutes and sat down.We talked a bit about their lives, although it was Albert’s companion who spoke the most. I asked them little but as has often happened when I have spent time with homeless individuals in this community they told me a great deal, from where they came from to where they spent their nights on the street. They were telling the stories of their lives, and I was content to listen, although Albert looked on occasion to be nodding off as the warm drink finally began to warm him and he sat in the sunshine.
Finally I asked the question I have often asked homeless individuals in our community. I asked why they stayed in Fort McMurray. This is a harsh place to experience homelessness, with our frigid winters that last forever. There are far easier places to be homeless, places without six foot snowbanks and -35 degree temperatures that can last for weeks.The lovely thing about the vast majority of the homeless people I have encountered is their honesty. It is so refreshing to be told you have asked a stupid question, as often as soon as it has left my lips I know it is stupid. This time, though, Albert’s companion didn’t tell me my question was stupid. He asked me why I stayed here.
I replied, “Because this is my home.”Albert’s companion laughed and said “Ours too!”, and Albert nodded, smiling in agreement.
That was the last time I spoke to Albert, although I saw him since then walking on our streets. I didn’t think much more about that conversation until last night when I learned his name and the nature of his death.You see I am troubled by describing Albert as homeless because I fear it will somehow diminish him in the eyes of those who hear this story. I fear he will be considered someone who, because he didn’t have a home, didn’t have a community or neighbours, people who cared for him and who will miss him now that he is gone. He was a treasured and valued resident of this community despite his lack of a house. Albert’s community was his homeless friends and the people who encountered him every day, enjoying that gentle smile and soul. Albert might have been without a home but he was not homeless – his home was Fort McMurray, and I am so very, very sorry that he is now gone from it.
I extend my deepest condolences to Albert's family and friends. I am so very angry at the callous nature of the person who struck him down and did not even stop to check on his welfare, but that anger will be held in check for another day as I will not sully Albert's memory with it today. Today is just a day to remember Albert, who called Fort McMurray home.