Longtime Lookout Society employee Al Mitchell passed away suddenly Monday afternoon. Al was with Lookout since 1989 and was the society's Outreach manager.
Karen O'Shannacery, executive director of Lookout, describes Al as a driving force.
"His teasing, his trains, pictures – his generosity and caring. He has contributed immensely to Lookout and to homeless people," says Karen.
"He was passionate about social justice and strove to live a life that honoured those around him. We will honour him through a DTES celebration of life and will find a day that works for out-of-towners, family and of course, all of us."
Al Mitchell is survived by his partner Ann and daughters Helena and Adriana.
Twain and trains
Al Mitchell described himself as a "Lifelong learner in Mark Twain's post-grad program," further explaining his approach with a quote from the American author, "I never let my schoolin' get in the way of my education."
In other words, Al did not let textbooks, policy and procedures dictate his every decision. Sometimes gut instinct, experience and humour were his best guides.
Al helped the society earn the reputation as an innovator and leader among homelessness and housing service providers. A Lookout Society staffer since 1989, he served hundreds, if not thousands, of clients. He was not motivated by honours and acknowledgement. Instead, he preferred to pass the compliments on to those he worked with.
Mark Twain, who was also a train aficionado just like Al, might have considered using this famous quote as a tribute to the selfless work Al completed for Lookout and its clients:
"There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded."
But a better tribute to Al are the words of fellow Lookout Society staffers and colleagues . Here are some of the thoughts they have shared:
My name is Lori Dennis and I am from BC Housing. I have been asked to speak on behalf of the Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy, which is a non-profit society made up of social service providers dedicated to serving the homeless across the lower mainland.
We are Al's community colleagues.
Al served on the GVSS for many years, including time on the Board. During his time at the GVSS, Al brought to the table his expertise not only on the issue of homelessness but also data.
Al was man of data. Not too many people love data. But Al loved data.
I am told that this appreciation of statistics was founded during his career in the armed forces as a Supplies and Unit Quarter Master1 as he had to organize supplies.
Myself, I have never' been in the military, but I can only assume that it is really, really important to know what supplies are on hand.
In the homelessness services world, he used this skll set to advocate for improved services for the most vulnerable.
An example of this would be what is now the Extreme Weather Response Program. It is a province wide program that seeks to ensure everyone has a place to sleep in the winter. That is an additional 1,200 beds across BC.
His advocacy can be seen is the breathed and depth of services that Lookout now offers the community, but also in his influence at the provincial and federal level.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention HIFIS.
Al's contributions to the federal government's Homeless Individuals and Families Information System ... IDFIS ... are significant. He was a part of the initial consultations 20 years ago.
He was also instrumental in the implementation and the ongoing development of BC's Homeless Services System.
Al has an attention to detail which is outstanding. I, on the other hand, do not have that ability .. When going into a meeting with Al, I have to always prepare myself with the details because he would always ask.
He would say, "What about this?" or "What about if we did that?". He kept me on my toes.
This was because Al was never satisfied with the status quo when it came to serving to the vulnerable.
He expected more. He demanded more. He wanted the best.
To Al's family, please know that his work legacy continues with GVSS projects like the Homeless Seniors Community of Practice, where seniors who have lived experience in homelessness are engaged so we can have a better understanding and support them through programming.
We are deeply sorry for the loss of your husband and father. Thank you for sharing your Al with us.
It is because of your support of Al, that he could share his skills, knowledge and passion with the sector and tae people facing homelessness.
It is difficult to say goodbye to Al. His death was so sudden. So unexpected. Our deepest condolences to the family, and to all of you who knew him. He was truly bigger than life. It certainly doesn’t seem like we worked together for 27 years, the time has flown!
Ann, Helena, Adriana – thank you for sharing Al with Lookout's family, he was a big part of it – I know he saw us much more than you a lot of the time…… He really didn’t know boundaries when it came to that, did he? He threw himself 110% into anything he was truly passionate about, whether it was the SS Master, the rails, or Lookout. And he got all of you involved in supporting Lookout too!
Prior to Lookout, Al's religious beliefs had led him to an assistant ministry position and he served many volunteer hours with Foursquare Church in Vancouver. In 1986, when he and Ann were providing foster and emergency care for children, he applied to work at Lookout as, with their growing family, they wanted to move into a different type of human service.
Through his volunteerism and the foster care, Al understood poverty and believed he was ready to meet the needs of homeless people and the diverse needs they brought. He was impressive and showed what would be his lifelong empathy for folks who’d been marginalized.
So, we hired him as what we’d now call a case worker, linking people to services, advocating for access and organizing, very successfully, places that were appropriate for people to move to. And he did that partially by that force of personality we all came to know so well, and through making those friendships that endure to today – the numbers of people in this room attest to that.
He was strongly dedicated to Lookout: the vision, mandate, the team work. He would support and train his coworkers, both as a front line worker and later as a manager – a role he took on within a few years of coming to Lookout. He’d “wax eloquently” about the services, and would always strive to improve what we could do. Looking at the big picture – ending homelessness – and the small: a person taking one small step at a time. He'd say, "keep them alive to return another day" - demonstrating how he'd never give up on anyone and neither should we.
He provided great leadership, was so smart and insightful; Al’d encourage others to think differently about how to provide services to reduce barriers through storytelling and tours. He made it easy for them to understand how often people were victimized. To contribute further, he served on a number of Boards as well as participated on numerous local and national committees. He became my work partner, assisting me in moving Lookout forward: protecting our minimal-barrier services and expanding because there was just too many out there who had no place to go.
I think of the first ever lower mainland extreme weather shelter – as it would now be called. In 1994 it was a snow blizzard, me calling the City to say people would be harmed; Vancouver General Hosp calling to say they had an empty building, and within 4 hours we had a temporary shelter with 50 beds on the 6th floor of the old Nurses Residence. And all those beds were filled…….
This was the root of the now regional EWR strategy and the seasonal winter shelters, and led to the creation of the Yukon shelter and housing, the first time the City of Vancouver was willing to have another shelter built within the City. It was Al and I together organizing transportation, volunteers, staff and I accessing beds and other supplies and material needed and he setting everything up carrying those beds up 6 flights of stairs as the elevators didn't work – this was the establishment of our “Shelter in a Box”, shared now across the sheltering community in Canada for a quick set up guide for emergency shelter services. This wasn't possible without Al. And this type of urgent activity is where Al excelled.
Al was so generous at all times – with his time, with his vast knowledge and expertise, and with his caring, going the “extra mile”. I'll share just one example of this: we had a mentally handicapped young man come to the downtown shelter, a runaway from the interior who also had serious mental health issues. He wanted to go home but through the official channels, it would involve a number of strangers, plane ride, time – Al simply said that he had some vacation time coming, and a train he had to take a picture of in that neck of the woods, and so he drove the young man home…. A two day trip. The outcome? A grateful family and a less traumatised person….. How many people would even think to do that? that was our Al.
Al’s storytelling – never did I see him at a loss for words – or maybe once when a co-worker Barb Perovic came dressed for Halloween as Al – But his humour and storytelling brought insights to the points he was trying to make: no conversation with Al was ever short, but they were rich! Sharing knowledge, best practices, convincing people to make the right decisions whether for funding, for policy and planning, or for the individual – that was Al’s forte. His passion for the folks he cared about would always come out. And he always knew the right thing to say....
The “old buddy, old pal” and “Have I got a shift for you” during calls braced you in a warm way, for the ask that would come…. We will all miss those calls…… His way of supporting his staff stay true to mandate: LET THE WOOKIE WIN was a phrase he used to indicate that it was about helping people, despite the challenges. His way of encouraging and not giving up on people: including staff who doubted themselves or who were coping with serious personal issues. Or sharing and supporting new managers learn the ropes. His insights and understandings helped guide me through the first storms of Lookout’s past: the Lookout strike, our initial expansion of services, reorganizing to enable us to continue to expand. His phrase “calling a duly constituted committee” drove me nuts – but it was a good reminder that we had built this infrastructure, and all needed to use it for it to be strong. Thank you Al, for your personal support and guidance.
I don’t know Ann, how could a guy who organized supplies and supply systems as a Quartermaster in the reserves for 8 years or, as when he served 18 months of duty with the UN Emergency Forces in Egypt/Israel/ Syria area, or even as the guy responsible for developing and organizing our client database at Lookout, how could Al be so great at organizing the micro-details – yet he’d lose stuff on his desk and within his office…… ? And that was because of his attention to detail – to ensure that everything that needed to be known about whatever, was gathered and known, before action occurred. He and I had many talks about this – he had a powerful aversion to making errors especially affecting people! But you know, he knew that errors were a way to learning, and didn’t sweat the small stuff and didn’t want anyone else to either.
What I could never get about Al was how he could remember all those little details about… well virtually everything and it is one of the reasons he is so close to so many. Whether it be someone sharing their personal trip plans: he’d come up with a book, or pictures, or something of interest for the person to include on their trip – and I swear, ALWAYS give the location of the place to take the best pictures of his other passion: trains, and train engines… enroute and at the location. For instance, when my family went to Yukon & Alaska we were given an itinerary of places to get pic’s of trains and train stations. Of course we’d take as many of those shots as we could, and give to Al. But unlike Al, we wouldn’t wait three hours for that 1 opportunity! Ann, you must have 1,000’s of pictures of trains, many duly organized and labelled including from those of us at Lookout who were willing recruits in train photography. And he’d take such pride in showing his pictures or models to anyone, and share the story that came with the train. He established a train club at Lookout with our clientele, for a time had a big display that was a huge hit. A few caught the “train fever bug” and established their own model tables they were proud to show, developing hobbies that took them out of themselves.
One of the best trips that Al had was when his love of trains intersected with his politics and Lookout’s mandate: he representing Lookout, and Vancouver, riding the rails of protest on the On to Ottawa Trek re-creation to advocate for a National Housing Strategy and more funds for homes. He got so much joy from that trip, which of course he combined with picture taking, a visit to our MP Libby Davies and a jaunt to the hallowed halls of HIFIS, our client database source. I imagine him now riding the rails......
Talking about client databases – when Al first came to Lookout we had an in-house system we were using to help demonstrate the needs of the people we served, and to give statistical proof to funders and policy decision makers – at the time, funding was very precarious and Lookout, as the only full service shelter provider, always had to defend 24/7 service and the lack of access to services that our clientele coped with. Al took to the database like a dog with a bone, taking courses to learn how to create databases and then taking a course in statistical analysis – to best interpret the information that we were collecting. A stickler for details, he delved into stats and developed a new database, one based in Dbase for any of you nerds out there – that would be simple, fast to complete and easy to get info out of. It was also a database that he could tweak as needed to identify service gaps so that Lookout could advocate on, or to meet new funder requirements. While most of Lookout loved to hate the client database, and still do, truth be told, this ‘data-mining’ enabled us to prove successfully where gaps were, and successfully gain funding to create new resources such as the Jeffrey Ross Residence, the Jim Green Residence, the North Shore, New West, – and more. Al was my partner in this…… and he has championed crafting HIFIS as a database that is useful for frontline staff to use in case planning, not just as a way of demonstrating our effectiveness. He was our lead in this, and of course, collaborated with the fledgling efforts of CMHC to develop HIFIS in the late 80’s, and championed HIFIS being implemented as a national database in 1990. He was honoured in that role when CMHC rolled HIFIS out with fanfare, in western Canada at Al’s place – the downtown shelter.
Al was so practical, always thinking of the easiest ways to do things, the KISS principle. Like our valuables counts in the shelters. Going and getting a ton of tin boxes to put people’s stuff in so that we didn’t need to count every little thing, or go into every personal thing that a person had. Or his wearing of white shoes – all the better to see if there was a bedbug infestation. He’d get some quirky delight at people asking him about his white shoes….
Adriana, he is so proud of you – 2nd generation Lookouter - from volunteer to staff – and he always ensured that people knew you got the job on your own merits, not because of him. Helena, that train trip, you took with him, wow! The pictures he sent, the fact that you’d spend the time with him, sharing his love, he talked about that for years. Ann, you were his first and only love, thank you for sharing him with us – putting up with those many times he’d show up late…. May all three of you recognize that Al’s significant contribution to Lookout, and to the homeless service sector, was partially because of your willingness to share him.
He will always be in our hearts and his legacy lives on in the many details of Lookout. In recognition of this, we will be renaming the building where he spent so much of this time, after him. 346 was truly, Al’s place.
Executive Director, OBC
September 30, 2013
• First met Al in 94
• Al had this great ability to skewer people and institutions - never could manage to get mad at him- always ended up laughing at myself.
• From the start he was causing turbulence- called our program a "doll house" - was thinking don't hold back man- tell us what you really feel.
• Went on to team up with Al on the original HIFIS
• Remember him trying to break it- sitting in his Cubby hole of an office at the Alexander all wild eyed while he was loading in the complete works of Shakespeare into a text box in the hifis program.- he didn't break it.
• Used to give me all these disks with templates of reporting forms he created, I could never use them all.
• Still can't figure out how he finagled Karen into letting him go to Ottawa by train to the HIFIS meeting- I learned there in Ottawa that Alloved trains and could go on about it for hours
Worked with him during the initial stages of setting up the Regional cold weather table he was always sharing what he knew with being elitist In my years working Al he was always doing something
What I he never saw him do was; complain about the Staff team at Lookout-- not once he was always positive. He never complained about the people he was working with or seemed to resent them. He never made other service providers who were still learning about homeless feel like they were less than he was.
From what I saw:
• Always willing to help
• Had no fear talking to power
• Always caused turbulence in a good way
• Had a love for the people he was working with
Al showed me a lot- one of the things that sticks with me was him saying "just keep them alive for one more day, that's what we need to do." He was practical that day and he was right.
Hanging around withAl (and that's kind of how it was -it felt comfortable with him around.)- helped me be a better worker in this field.
A heavy , heavy heart I have writing this with some tears….
He hired me 5 ½ years ago as a casual SRW, and told me things I still use today , like we can have a person with over 100 stays and to not give up because it could be that one stay that could make the difference to them.
Al taught me so much about pulling the good out of people. He believed in me as an outreach worker and I watched in awe over the years his ability to always be happy and see the good in everything., even in me.
He would always help in our advocacy with our outreach clients and would do everything he could to assist us with his support.
He made a HUGE impact in my life and I only hope to be half the person he was.
He was funny, appreciative and always there for us staff. He was tough on me but for good reason, he saw my passion. He encouraged me to be the best worker I can and helped me see what I could not. He truly taught me so much That is a true leader J He was the best boss anyone could ever ask for , and I feel very honoured to have known him. Makes me want to do better and keep on keeping on and improving my skill set.
He has literally changed my life along with the lives of hundreds of others.
I will miss his stories , his insight , his visits and words of wisdom along with his smile………….
Will miss him dearly
Lisa F., North Shore Outreach
Al was a glass is always half full kind of guy.
He would always try to see the positive side to every situation, even when no one else could. He would see positives in people that no one else could.
Al was scatterbrained in some ways but so thoughtful and generous in others. Last year at H’Arts for the Homeless Gala he won the wine cooler, and gave everyone a bottle – gave me the one he knew I had my eye on. I was really moved – I wouldn’t have shared!
Al knew that as a vegan I would have troubles eating in public forums, at meetings etc, there was never anything tasty for the vegan to eat. Once day he went to a bakery up on Hastings and Nanaimo because he knew they advertised vegan cinnamon buns and he brought one to me. He was so proud of himself that he found something tasty I could eat, and I was really in awe. He really was one of a kind.
Michelle Raufeisen, Yukon Manager
I recall getting “jammed in” regarding HIFIS and it was suggested that I call Al for a “quick answer” by a fellow employee…… needless to say, 20 minutes later AND all manner of subjects in between, I still needed help with the HIFIS question!!! We both laughed…
Maggie C, Tenant Support Worker at Rhoda Kaellis Residence
Al was a great manager, I knew him for 3 years on and off. He was one of those managers that stood out.
He had lots to say, and with a purpose. He was always, caring, loving and full of great information. He knew Lookout so well, you could ask him about anything. And in most cases get a nice quirky joke from him.
He will be missed, for all of the hard work, and loving care he placed for the organization and the public.
I really loved his moustache and always wanted to know what it would be like to have one.
Surely missed and I know his Faith is where he is right now. Loved and comforted.
Caroline C, TSW North Shore
I didn’t know him well but he made me smile and laugh
I didn’t see him often but when I did he was positive and encouraging
He sent an email or two my way to tell me how well he thought I was doing
At times I needed to hear it.
May his family, friends and loved ones be comforted in the fact he spent his time well.
Selene, TSW Avalon Hotel
I lost a friend on Tuesday,
A co-worker, a manager
Who loves his work,
Embraced his co-workers,
Dignified and up lifted,
Always with a smile,
Always on the go,
A new task, a new flow
A new idea, a new smile.
I lost a light
I lost a friend.
I lost a hero,
Shakespeare and talent of gold
Of history and of old
Of stories and of battles
Of victories and of Loss
I lost a friend.
A story ends, a story begins.
His work will continue
His way will not be forgotten
HIFIS will never be the same, forever changed
Forever he will be, a part
Of Lookout Emergency Aid Society
I lost a friend, a part of me.
I had the privilege of sharing an office (formerly a broom closet) with Al almost on a daily basis. While the volume of his voice sometimes made it hard to think, I was privy to famous “Al –isms”. For example:
Whenever Al needed staff to fill in or take care of something, the phone conversation always started like this: “Hi (Dave), my friend, my buddy, my paaaaaallll” (said in the best southern drawl).
Al often sent emails stating: “I forgot my cell phone at home”, “ I can’t log on to this computer”, “ I can’t get access to my email”, “I’m stuck on transit” and one email stated: ‘I had the presence of mind at 0600 to put my phone on its charger so’s it would be sure to have power to last the day. It probably will do fine since I forgot to pick it up when I went out the door and left it behind…’
Al informed people that he was ” the local representative of the capitalist military industrial complex, in the on-going struggle between the forces of wealth and the proletariat”. Or even a “duly constituted, delegated and relegated representative”.
Al Mitchell was always willing to pitch in, lend a hand, drive further, stay longer, give more, talk louder and especially buy me a coffee ☺ You will be sorely missed Al!!
I just wanted to say how much I will miss you Al your smile your humour most of all your courageousness. You would always no matter what you were doing stop and take the time to listen. I would sometimes question what you were trying to say when I eventually realized you weren’t trying to say anything at all you just wanted to ground me.
Thank you Al for being such an inspiration in my life, teaching me about social justice and it was more than just a cot and 3 hots. You will be a part of me forever. See you on the tracks my friend!
Love Christine Williams
While I was the Program Manager at the Yukon some six years ago, I was part of a Lotto pool with other Lookout employees. One Saturday morning at around 6:30 I got a call from the Yukon. It was Al, and having just been woken from my sleep, I was trying to figure out why he was calling me.
He kept repeating the same thing over and over. "They did it". I asked Al, Who did what and he replied They won the lottery, and now no one showed up for their shifts.
He asked me to get to the Yukon ASAP, but all I could think at that time was "I didn't put my $2.00 in this week. Al then asked me what today was and I froze. All he said was April fools day! Al was a great mentor who could use any analogy to teach and spread his wisdom. I will miss him.
Chris D., Russell Housing Centre
Here are some of my memories of Al:
- One day at the front desk with staff, Al delivered an exquisite monologue about the bourgeois, proletariat and capitalism. One staff member was so taken aback she exclaimed, “Can you please say that again?!” Al proceeded to repeat verbatim what he had just said. Oh how I now wish I had recorded it!
- Al shared how he used to be a preacher, a longwinded one at that. I would often approach Al with a question and receive an answer embedded in a story!
- Al expounding the difference between the good shepherd and the hireling (from John 10:11-14). Al encouraged me as an Outreach Worker to be as the good shepherd and genuinely care for our clientele.
- Dropping off cases of bottled water during the hot summer days for our Outreach clients.
- Coming in on weekends and Stat holidays to help out.
- Handing out free Canada t-shirts on Canada Day.
- Backing up his staff team just as a sergeant would stand behind his troops.
- Military stories from the Middle East and sharing our experiences in the Canadian army. We both happened to be in the same unit, just at different times!
- Treating us to sushi at our staff meetings.
- If you wanted to get Al’s attention, just start talking documentation, HIFIS, stats or trains!
- My last conversation with Al was on the phone, trying to pull off an 11th hour rent subsidy for a client. Al came through and personally delivered the cheque to the North Shore on a Saturday morning!
I am really going to miss you Al. Thanks for being a positive influence in my life!
Ken R., North Shore Outreach
It was Wednesday, Aug. 21st and I received my first email as an Outreach worker. It was from Al and he said," I’m happy to announce Masoud." One part was written in Farsi. He wrote word by word in Farsi, a revolutionary becomes an outreach worker. We laughed about it later because he had a hard time to find right word in Farsi for Outreach. I miss him every day.
When people that have so much impact in your life leave, you want the whole world know that how precious the person is and how much you going to miss that person, Al Mitchell was one. At the time that I got the news I wanted everything to stop and everyone know that
Masoud A., Outreach