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DEAD END STREETS

In the first part of a Globe series on homelessness in Vancouver, MARK HUME looks at the complex life and tragic death of a promising would-be musician

From Monday's Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER — It was miserable on the streets of Vancouver the night Francis Monroe McAllister died.

Leaden skies hung over the city and the temperature fell below zero. As darkness came it grew colder and many of the 1,200 homeless people began to abandon the church steps, sheltered doorways or alleys where they normally huddled. Driven by warnings of snow, they soon overwhelmed shelters, which had only 650 beds.

At -4 C an emergency shelter plan would have opened an additional 200 floor mats. But it reached only -1.6 that day, leaving Mr. McAllister 2.4 degrees short of salvation -- and out in the cold, struggling to survive another night alone.

His death, one year ago today, brought into focus a homelessness problem that has plagued Greater Vancouver for years, leading to a flurry of studies and calls for more emergency shelters. There are rising fears that when the city plays host to the Winter Olympics in 2010, the blight of homelessness will be on display for the world to see.

Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan recently announced a strategy to crack down on panhandlers and reduce homelessness by at least half by the time the Games start.

But amid all this angst people are forgetting to ask: Who was Francis McAllister and how did he end up dying on Vancouver's streets?

"My life is just addiction," he had said. "Addiction, I believe comes from low self-esteem, and to pull out of it -- that's what you need to work from. I need to quit feeling ashamed of myself and I gotta chase my goals. I know the creator gave me some gifts and I'm just wasting them, wasting them down here."

He wanted to escape Vancouver's streets but kept hitting dead ends.

"There's guys down here that brag -- 'I've been down here for 15 years.' Well, that's nothing to brag about -- I don't think," he said.

"I'm getting to the point where any longer is too late."

Despite his bleak situation (he was broke, HIV-positive, had hepatitis C and was without a home) he dreamed of cutting a CD. One day he walked into a professional recording studio and, with musicians and backing vocalists, laid down a tough, gritty track that knocked everybody out. Frank's Tune reflected his desperate life on the street and his desire to escape it.

"Thirty-seven years and nothing to show/Oh there's gotta be a better way to go," he sang.

In reconstructing Mr. McAllister's difficult life, it becomes clear his death was caused not by the exposure on the street that night, but by a combination of deeper factors. At the root, however, was the homelessness that compromised his health and wore him out.

Homelessness is a national crisis but Vancouver is widely seen as the city with the worst problem because its street people, lining sidewalks and alleys of the Downtown Eastside and now spilling into the business core, are concentrated in a small area and highly visible.

If homelessness in Canada needs a human face, few could be more fitting, or more haunting, than Mr. McAllister's. He was a stubborn, proud, complex man who was crippled by his experiences in foster homes, which he first entered at the age of 3.

"The things that I went through in foster homes, the things I heard, and the things they did -- made me believe that I was no good."

Despite those painful memories he was searching for his roots. The year before he died he was introduced to an aboriginal frame drum, and he learned to chant.

"In my heart I am proud that I am a Cree native," he said. "And it took me a long time to say those words, that I love myself. I'm a good man -- a good guy."

Those who got to know him agreed.

"He wasn't hardcore like a lot of people down here," said a friend, who identified herself as C.J.

"He didn't let the street take away his sense of humour. He always made me laugh. . . . He was sweet."

But he was deeply troubled, as most homeless people are.

And while he failed to take advantage of what social support programs there were, even to the point of rebuffing paramedics as he lay dying, it can also be said that the system repeatedly failed him.

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