Meet the reverend working with Victoria's most vulnerable.
Walking on the sunny side of the street
“Some of the men and women I work with have survived through so much unbelievable stress. I watch a dandelion poke its way through the cement on the sidewalk. Ithink that’s the kind of determination they have. Also those seeds go everywhere.”
Sixty-eight-year-old Reverend Allen Tysick, known to most as Rev. Al, wakes up each day at 2:30 a.m., long before the sun makes its move towards the morning. He leaves his home in Sooke, where he lives with his wife, Mary, by 3 a.m. He makes the hour-long drive to Victoria rain or shine, in freezing winter snow or in the height of summer heat, five days a week.
“I’m into Tim Horton’s by 4 a.m,” he tells me. “They save me their leftover donuts... then I head to Rock Bay Landing, a homeless shelter serving Victoria. They make the coffee, and then I’m at my first stop by 5 a.m., just up from Rock Bay...then I have 10 more stops after that.”
In 2011, Tysick founded the Dandelion Society, a registered charity that confronts poverty in Victoria on physical and relational levels. Tysick and his small team of staff and volunteers from the street community bring services and care to the people in their mobile office: the Dandelion Society van.
Tysick drives the van around the city, making stops to wake the people he refers to as his “family members” with a coffee, a donut, or a “precious cigarette.” He hands out essentials, like coats, mitts, tarps, and sleeping bags for those sleeping rough on the streets. He serves over 150 people every day.
Tysick and the Dandelion Society target the relational side of poverty by coming alongside each person to meet their specific needs on that specific day.
“The real purpose of the ride in the morning is to be a presence and to make contact,” he explains. “I ask: what can I do for you for the rest of the day? Right now, for example, I’m loading the van because a guy’s been kicked out of his apartment. We’re putting his stuff in storage this afternoon.”
Other times, Tysick makes visits to the hospital, to jails, to the doctor’s office. He helps fill out welfare applications, he attends meetings, drives people where they need to go. And often, he sits in the van and listens to people’s stories, to their successes, and their concerns.
Tysick has been working with the street community for the past 30 years and has close personal ties to it. As one of five children living in a low- income neighbourhood in Ottawawith his mother, Tysick grew up supported by the welfare system.
“My father was a street person. He was in and out of our lives when I was a youngster and I hated the man. I guess what I’m trying to do as an adult is to get to know him more through my work. And the other reason I do what I do would be my faith. I’m ordained as a minister [in the United Church]. I’m trying to live out the gospel.”
More than two decades ago, Tysickbegan his work in Victoria when he started working with the Open Door Society, a “living room,” where those experiencing homelessness could rest, eat, and socialize.
In 2006, Tysick helped carry out the merger of Open Door with the Upper Room, a shelter that provided housing and meals. The merger resulted in the building of Our Place Society, a drop-in centre and transitional housing facility that offers meals, educational programs, counselling, shower facilities, and a computer room.
“All that was left was running the place,” he says, after Our Place opened its doors.
Tysick ran the shelter until 2011. He retired from his position as executive director to address a new need on Victoria’s streets.
A safe haven for the hardest to house
“I’m a guy who likes to build,” he says. “I’ve built seven non-profits across the country. I saw the need [to serve] those who are barred from the shelters like Our Place, the need for someone who could work with these people. Someone like myself who’s a little long in the tooth, and who has built trust. I know most people by their name, their stories, their families.”
Tysick hopes to build the Dandelion Society into a two-van, five-staff operation. “I have no plans to retire, God- willing,” Tysick says. “I hope to be around here until I’m 75.”
At the end of a long day, around 4 p.m., Tysick drives back home to Sooke. At home, he sometimes writes, or makes stained glass before heading to sleep.
And the next morning, he’s at it again, tending to each sprout, shining light over the garden of flowersthat many view as weeds.
Al Tysick urges readers to donate clothes, socks, sleeping bags, and financial contributions to the Dandelion Society and other local charities. He also highlights the importance of listening to stories and sharing with those around you. More info: HopeLivesHere.ca.