Six years ago, Robert Washie spent his nights outside in downtown Yellowknife, with only a tarp for cover.
He wore a parka, long underwear, two pairs of socks and shoes.
The winter chill cut through all of it, so he’d huddle against his best friend for warmth.
“I'd get up in the morning, just cold...The only place I could go was Salvation Army to grab a hot cup of coffee,” he recalls.
Washie is originally from Behchoko. He describes his upbringing as troubled, with a difficult childhood spent in a residential school. As an adult, he had many run-ins with the police for public drunkenness and violence, all while under the influence of alcohol.
He spent time in prison in Edmonton and was released in 1991. He returned to Yellowknife to look for a job and a place to live, but had no luck getting either. He turned to life on the streets
He’d shovel sidewalks and collect bottles for money.
“For what, a lousy 40 bucks?” Robert says now. But it was enough for a two-six of vodka.
That was his routine; work, make enough money for booze; get drunk. At night, he'd crash outdoors under the tarp, by that time too drunk to worry about freezing.
When he didn't have enough money, or if the liquor stores were closed, he'd get his fix elsewhere.
He drank Listerine, Lysol, hairspray, even deodorant. He'd figure out a way to get the alcohol from it using a tin can and a flame.
“A lot of people have drug addiction to weed and crack, but me, no no no,” he says.
“Alcohol is different; alcohol just numbs your body from the cold.”
One night he got so drunk he ended up in the ICU for two days; he doesn't remember how he got there. His doctor told him his liver was half shot. If he kept living this way, he'd die.
Robert remembers thinking, “I don't think I wanna be like this all my life. Right now I'm 45; I'm not young anymore.”
Drop-in centre made a difference
He began to frequent the John Howard Drop-In Centre, where other homeless people went during the day to keep warm, use the phone, rest and eat.
He approached Lydia Bardak, who runs the building, and asked her for a job.
She said he'd have to prove himself by taking some treatment programs and volunteering first.
For three years, he did it, to show her how badly he wanted it. He got the job.
Robert's been employed with the John Howard Society for six months now.
“Before I got the job, I was walking around on the street in their shoes,” he says, nodding to the people who mill in and out of the centre. “Now I went to the store, I bought myself a brand new shoes, and I'm here. And I'm glad.”
He wears those shoes, but he brings in spare socks, underwear and even pants, to work. Same with toothbrushes, soap and Q-tips. He gives them to the people who need them more than he does.
“You gotta realize these people, they got nothing. I used to be where they are.”
'I fought real hard to get this job'
Now Robert has a job, a wife — who works with him at the centre — and a place of his own.
Together, he and his spouse open the building each morning at 6:45; one cooks meals in the kitchen while the other spends time with the clients in the main area.
“I open the front door, put chairs down, first thing they say is 'Thank you Robert, Good Morning Robert,” he says.
“They sit, listen to radio. Have a good cup of hot tea. And most of them just lay on the couch, kick their shoes off, relax...they say it's really cold.”
“But when I go home, I got a nice bed to sleep on, I got a nice warm blanket, a nice pillow, a nice beautiful angel laying beside me. What more can you ask for?” he asks, with tears in his eyes.
“When I have a puff of cigarette, I can feel the cold. I can feel my brothers and sisters still walking around. I tell my spouse, 'It must be cold.' When I go to work in the morning, they tell me: 'Ohhh, it's really cold, I walked around all night. I know how it feels, you know? I know how it feels.”
His empathy is not lost on the people he works with, many of whom call him “Iron-Man” after his favourite movie. He says they thank him for his help, and call him their friend, many times a day.
The job is stressful though; he has to confiscate alcohol, neutralize conflict and ask people to leave if they're being too disruptive.
It doesn't deter him from calling it the most beautiful job in the world.
“I fought real hard to get this job, and now I'm planning on to keeping it,” he says.
“Sure I have my ups and downs here and there, but I'm always there for them, no matter what.”