Saturday, July 12, 2008

R.I.P. André Hamel

André Hamel passed away July 4th. I only found out yesterday while reading a borrowed copy of the Ottawa Sun. It was unpleasant news to receive but really, I'm glad I found out. I'm certain that I would have noticed at some point that I had not seen him in a while and I would have been curious as to his whereabouts.

Mr Hamel was a homeless man who seemed to spend the bulk of his time in the same few spots in downtown Ottawa. He was one of these people that you got so used to seeing around that he just became part of the scenery. He was someone that added character to a neighborhood.

When I showed a co-worker the article, he was blown away. I didn't have to ask whether he'd heard of Mr Hamel. You just assume that anyone who spends any kind of time downtown knows him.

I've been living in Ottawa since 1988 and working a few blocks from the parliament buildings since 1998. I couldn't tell you when I first started noticing André Hamel. To me, he's just always been there, usually with his dog (which I now know to be named Muff and am pleased to hear is being looked after), often chatting with someone.

If I recall correctly, the story of his passing was on page four of Friday's edition of the Sun and it was given most of the page. Seldom do you see such coverage for the passing of a homeless man, but it seems that Mr Hamel touched more people than I realized until this week.

The following article speaks volumes to that effect, I think, as does the Ottawa Sun video that I'll link below.

I hope they keep the video accessible for a while; the gentleman speaking through most of it does a great job. He confirmed something I was asking myself about Mr Hamel. I was trying to remember, over the countless times that I've walked by him, if Mr Hamel had ever asked me for spare change or done anything but wish me a good day or comment on the good weather. My experience and that of the speaker appear to be quite similar, not surprisingly.

Jennifer Campbell, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The three women stood on the side of O'Connor street, staring at a makeshift shrine. And they cried. Margaret Callaghan, Gail Chiu and Julie LaPalme couldn't hold back the tears as they talked about a man they hardly knew.

"He was always there, with his dog," said Ms. Chiu, who said she sometimes gave him money but mostly, he'd ask for a smile. "He just loved the smiles."

Ms. LaPalme said the man had a great sense of humour and she was always buoyed by his positive outlook.

All afternoon, people gathered on the sidewalk to pay tribute to André Hamel, whose turf in front of the Bell Canada building on the corner of O'Connor and Albert streets now sits empty. For more than a decade, Mr. Hamel and his dog, Muff, brightened the days of office workers who passed by on their way to work, and on their way home.

"He was just kind of part of your day," Ms. Callaghan said, and added that although they had never compared notes on him in the past, many of her colleagues knew and liked him. "I was amazed by how many people knew him."

"He was such a friendly guy and all of a sudden, he's not there," Ms. LaPalme said. "We were talking about the fact that he deserved an obituary and we wondered who would write it."

The empty sidewalk has been given over to a couple of signs, one of which is from Bell employees. Written in French, it says the employees were comforted to know he wasn't alone when he had a heart attack on Canada Day. Mr. Hamel and Muff were in Sandy Hill with friends Guy Vaillant and Roger Gauthier, both of whom do outreach volunteer work. They were about to go watch the fireworks when Mr. Hamel had a heart attack. He was revived by Mr. Gauthier and later again by paramedics, but went into a coma in hospital and died early Friday morning.

Originally from Quebec, Mr. Hamel has two children, a son and a daughter. Julia Bazley, who works for Street Level, a national roundtable on poverty and homelessness, and someone who knew Mr. Hamel well, said he saw his children periodically. Friends said he had three sisters; one passerby said he'd been married; Ms. Bazley said he still had family in Magog. And that's about all they knew of the man who would have turned 52 on Aug. 9.

At the street-side memorial, flowers are piling up -- single roses with hand-written notes, big bouquets, a greeting card. And there are dog treats for Muff. The big dog, who's part chow, visited the shrine in the afternoon with his new owner, Darryl Dempsey. Mr. Dempsey lives on the street, but hopes to get his own place soon and enroll in a social-work program at Algonquin College in the fall. He has committed to looking after the 11-year-old dog who is described as Mr. Hamel's closest companion and who is clearly confused by his death.

"Every time I take him for a walk, he thinks I'm going to take him to see André," said Mr. Dempsey, who was overwhelmed by the memorial that all afternoon drew people, sometimes a dozen at a time, to pay their respects.

"Look, big, dumb black dog -- look what people have done for you," he said. "It just shows there's humanity out there."

Some who stopped were curious onlookers, but most remembered Mr. Hamel for his positive attitude and the way he made their days. His death has, in a strange way, brought a disparate community of downtown workers together.

"This guy was just so special," said Health Canada employee Connie Brisebois, as she fought back tears. "I found out his birthday was Aug. 9 and last year I gave him a Joe Louis with a candle on it. He was so thankful."

One card, from "Maria," reads: "In loving memory. You were a bright light in my mornings. We will miss you."

Downtown worker Dawn Guindon, her eyes reddened from tears, said Mr. Hamel was the first person she met when she moved to Ottawa seven years ago. Federal government employee Maria Booth, who dropped off a white rose, said he always had something nice to say. "He never begged for money, but sometimes you just wanted to give him something."


Caroline Fournier said...

I was on the bus the other day and noticed that the corner was empty. I actually wondered whether I had ever seen that corner empty before and could not for the life of me remember. I didn't make a big deal of it but then I found out that he had passed away. Just sad really and yes my first thought too was with respect to what had happened to the dog! You can touch people in so many ways without knowing it which should only make us strive to be the best person that we can be ... you never know who is watching.

T.H.I.T. said...

Here's the thing too; people talk about how cheerful he was.

If my bus is two minutes late in the morning and I miss my connection, you can't talk to me under about 10:30. I know there are an awful lot of people like that. This guy was homeless but apparently found a way to be happy. Good for him.

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