By Kelly Egan, Ottawa Citizen – December 13, 2016
William Browne, 49, has been living on the streets, off and on, since he was 13. Having gone through homelessness and depression issues, Browne finally ended up at the Ottawa Mission, where his life turned around. On Thursday he will graduate from the food services program at the mission as its valedictorian and is already working in the cafeteria at Algonquin College. Julie Oliver / Postmedia
I’ve spoken to lots of homeless people about their lives. There are so often moments of impossibility mixed with the mundane.
“I lived in a tent for three months,” says William (Billy) Browne, 50, running a hand through his luxurious grey hair inside the Ottawa Mission. “Just me and my dog.”
He pitched in a wooded area near the Queensway-Carleton Hospital, camouflaged it and, trying to avoid fires and attention, lived on sandwiches. Just him and Gypsy, his Akita-Husky mix, sleuthing in and out of the suburban forest.
“It played hard on the mind that summer. I really didn’t know where I was gonna be.” Now he does. On Thursday, Browne will be among seven graduates from the Mission’s Food Services training program, where cooking 300 eggs and 600 French toasts is just a morning’s work.
Graduate? More like launch.
Browne is already working in the cafeteria at Algonquin College, at the pizza and pasta bar, has his own place, even put up a couple of things on the wall. For the first time in years, he’s sleeping in an actual bed, uncrating his belongings from a bunch of well-travelled bins. “I was a big believer in the idea there are no jobs anymore, but if you want work, you can find work,” he said, describing an outlook that led to drifting and piecework much of his life. “When I took this course, now I see there’s jobs everywhere.”
He has a kind of homespun wisdom like that, picked up at the University of Life. Born an only child in Montreal, his father died of a heart attack when William was 13, sending him into foster care. “I’ve been on my own, basically since then.”
School wasn’t his thing. He never finished Grade 9 but was always handy. He worked in a plastics company, studied welding, picked up drywall and flooring, moved around. There was a stint in Toronto, in the oilpatch in Alberta, his own carpet cleaning company. There was always a way to scratch out a few bucks.
There were booze and drugs. There was depression, the scary kind. He describes a suicide attempt, another reminder of the incredible thing that is the human condition.
It was 2005, there had been a relationship breakup, debts, failures. He didn’t want to make a mess so, he says, he took the hose from his carpet cleaning tools and hooked it up to the exhaust of his car. He clamped the garage door shut and drove screws into the door.
He was about to turn on the ignition, he said, when he remembered a school-aged teenager would probably find him first. So he stopped. “The difference now is that I can feel myself getting that deep again.”