How a formerly homeless man went from stealing food to eating beef bourguignon

Roger Deschamps used to wonder where his next meal would come from. Now five years sober and in stable housing, he'll attend an annual Wesley Urban Ministries feast where he gets to indulge his inner foodie.

Roger Deschamps will indulge his inner foodie at a feast during NOSH week

Roger Deschamps, centre, hasn't always known where his next meal would come from. Now he's dining at a Wesley Urban Ministries gala on Oct. 18 catered by Michael Cipollo, left, of Hambrgr and Jonny Blonde, right, along with Cake and Loaf. The event is part of NOSH week. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Sitting at a counter near a bustling kitchen, Roger Deschamps talks food with two local chefs, and he holds his own.

You beg, borrow and steal.- Roger Deschamps, on finding food when you're homeless

The self-described foodie is talking horse with Jonny Blonde. Horse is a decent meat, Blonde says. Full of muscle. When he tried it, it was raw.

Deschamps, who was once a homeless addict who knew what it was to beg and steal for food, nods. "Like a tartare."

Deschamps is one of the 100 people chosen to attend the Wesley Urban Ministries gala for people in the housing and homelessness program, to be held during NOSH.

Deschamps is five years sober now and lives in an apartment on Ferguson Avenue North. He does peer support at the Wesley Centre.

For Deschamps, attending the Oct. 18 gala, where he'll feast on beef bourguignon and roasted squash soup, is the culmination of years of hard work rebuilding his life. It's also a shot at his favourite pasttime — a great meal. He can't wait.

"People that go to the Wesley Centre don't get treated like this every day," he said. "So it's something very special."

As long as you've got breath in you, fight it.- Roger Deschamps

This is the third year for the dinner, which three members of Hamilton's restaurant boom will cater. Hambrgr will provide the beef bourguignon, Jonny Blonde the roasted squash soup, and Cake and Loaf a delicious pie.

Wesley chooses the attendees, said Andrea Buttars, manager of resource development. It's a mix. Some are still homeless. Some are newly housed. Some, like Deschamps, are helping others now.

'He's a great role model'

"(Roger) can talk with people as a peer, as someone who has had challenges and difficulties in the past and has moved forward with his life," she said. "He's a great role model."

It's been a long road for Deschamps, a Cornwall native who was kicked out of his family's home for drug use at 16.

He spent six months squatting in the frigid basement of an abandoned house. He recalls how terrifying it was. He had no access to a shower, and no clean clothes to wear. 

It's so nice to wake up first thing in the morning with a clear head.- Roger Deschamps

Finding food, he said, was particularly stressful. He ate what he could find. "You beg, borrow and steal," he said. "Unfortunately, that's just the way it is."

Deschamps bounced around the country, struggling with alcohol and drugs — "everything from marijuana to cocaine."

He went to rehab five times. He moved to Hamilton from Toronto 12 years ago with nowhere to stay. Wesley helped him with housing, laundry and meals.

Roger Deschamps on the Wesley Urban Ministries gala

6 years ago
Duration 0:25
Roger Deschamps on the Wesley Urban Ministries gala

Deschamps spent a few months in jail when some old theft charges caught up with him. He was released and got sober, and found the place where he lives now. He's even volunteered in the Wesley Centre kitchen, preparing food.

Deschamps now mentors other Wesley clients. He sees them come in with fear and addictions. He doesn't approach them. He lets them come to him. When they do, he helps them find resources and gives them quiet encouragement.

"Don't give up on yourself," he tells them. "As long as you've got breath in you, fight it."

Food for the family

Deschamps is excited to dine with some of those peers now. He's looking forward to seeing smiles on their faces, and with some, "you don't see that a lot."

Mike Cipollo, head chef of Hambrgr, said his goal is a warm autumn meal — high-end comfort food that can be shared among family.

"It's just one of those dishes where if you said to me 'what would you like to make for your family?' this is what I would make."

Like good food, Deschamps said, life now is "amazing.

"It's so nice to wake up first thing in the morning with a clear head, and to go on my laptop and my bank and see that I've got a tax-free savings account with actual money in it," he said. 

"It's so, so good. I wish I would have done it sooner."


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca