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He was trying to sober up. He never got the chance

Globe and Mail Update

‘I'm home!” – that was how Mitchell Anderson liked to announce his arrival on the many late nights he staggered into the overnight shelter at the Shepherds Of Good Hope in Ottawa, looking for a place to sleep off a drinking binge. He had a regular panhandling spot outside Elgin Street where, his friends say, his smiling compliments to passing woman helped him raise change for a bottle of sherry faster than just about anyone else. Drunk, he couldn't walk away from a fight; his face carried the scars of angry fists. But sober, he'd offer up his last cigarette if asked.

They told some of these stories this week at his funeral, held in a crowded chapel at the Shepherds, attended by staff who knew Mr. Anderson, his family and his friends from the street. They spoke, in particular, to his teenaged daughter, Christine, hunched over in tears in the second row, who had just been growing close to her father again. They know who she is, because Mr. Anderson talked about her all the time. She was the reason he stopped wandering and returned to Ottawa. Why, at 38, he wanted to deal with his alcohol addiction and go straight.

“He was really trying to kick it,” says Ryan Curran, a frontline worker at the shelter. “I honestly believed he was one of the guys who was going to sober up.”

He never got the chance.

Close to midnight on July 13, he was struck by a red Mazda sports car while he was crossing Sussex Drive, several blocks from the shelter. He died in hospital two days later, kept on life support so his mother and brother, travelling from his hometown of Kenora, Ont., could say good-bye.

The driver, believed to be in his late twenties or early thirties, didn't stop. Neither he nor his blonde female passenger has come forward. As of Thursday, police had narrowed their investigation to a handful of possible cars.

His friends worry that his life is seen to matter less because he spent it on the streets and his story is too much of a cliché to draw the sympathy it deserves. Abandoned by his father, raised by a mother who tried her best with limited resources, he struggled in school, left home at 18, started drinking and couldn't stop. He travelled from city to city, carrying everything he owned in a bag. He drank cheap wine if he had the money, and rubbing alcohol if he didn't. He went to jail repeatedly, mostly for minor offences – disturbing the peace, failing to pay fines – but after sobering up behind bars, he inevitably began the cycle again when he fell back into the streets.

NOWHERE TO GO

Lately, those streets, he told his older brother, Dave, were getting meaner and, as he was getting older, his body was less able to handle a night passed out in a park. He spoke more often lately about getting away from them for good.

But where was he to go, shelter staff wonder, to solve all his problems? They could take him in for a night or two, put him on a waiting list for treatment. But those solutions aren't enough, or they happen too slowly. As Paul Soucie, executive director at the Shepherds, points out in frustration, they can't send alcoholics or addicts, many of whom suffer from mental illness, into supportive housing – they're not able break the habit on their own. The city's detox unit is almost always full, and by the time there's a bed, Mr. Soucie says, the person waiting for it has been lost once more to the streets.

Over and over, the shelter staff see men and women like Mitchell Anderson, seeking a cure for their disease, and they have to tell them: “There's nowhere for you to go.”

For the last three years, he stayed in Ottawa, to be near his daughter, who lives in an apartment in Vanier, a neighbourhood close to downtown, with her mother, Fatima DaCosta. She and Mr. Anderson had lived together when Christine was young, then split up. But as long as he was sober, Ms. DaCosta didn't turn him away when he showed up at the door. “He was trying,” she said at the funeral, “to make amends.”

He didn't need to be reminded to hide his addiction from Christine: He could be a rough, sloppy drunk, and he never wanted her to see that. Whenever he planned to visit, he went cold turkey, his friends say, even if they had a bottle to share.

One afternoon, Mr. Anderson's daughter bumped into him on the street, called his name, and he was too drunk to recognize her. “He came and he was in tears,” Mr. Curran recalls. “After that, he was sober for a couple of days, and then he would slip.” He kept trying. “I can't be a true father,” he'd say sadly. “I have too many problems.”

Mr. Anderson spent his last afternoon with Christine. That night, Mr. Curran suspects he was making his way back to the shelter. It was his practice to show up early in the morning, though not always in good spirits. “You wouldn't want to approach him then,” says Mr. Curran. “Most average citizens would walk away.” But he'd sleep it off, and, later, they might catch up over a sandwich. They weren't so different, Mr. Curran observes: They each had a daughter and wanted to be the best fathers possible.

At his funeral, when friends rose to speak, Wayne Boucher described how he met Mr. Anderson when they were both living on the streets of Toronto in 1995. In Ottawa, they often drank together.

“He was never a lost soul,” Mr. Boucher said, standing at the foot of his friend's coffin. “He always knew the direction he wanted to go. Unfortunately, we all got our addictions.”

Erin Anderssen is a senior feature writer for The Globe and Mail. This is one of a series on individuals and families across Canada who are dealing with mental-health issues.

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