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Jack Knox: Long given up for dead, he now calls Victoria home

Some good news: Ten years after disappearing in Ontario, and two after being found on the streets of downtown Victoria, a man long given up for dead by his family is finally home. It’s just that, unexpectedly, home turned out to be right here.
Dan Vo sits beside a Chinatown mural during the days when he was still living on the streets. Adolf Ceska

Some good news: Ten years after disappearing in Ontario, and two after being found on the streets of downtown Victoria, a man long given up for dead by his family is finally home.

It’s just that, unexpectedly, home turned out to be right here.

After all those miserable nights sleeping in Chinatown doorways, eating out of garbage cans, being stabbed and beaten and trying to contend with untreated schizophrenia in a friendless world, Dan Thanh Vo now feels safe, supported. One of Victoria’s ACT teams has his back.

“I’m less lonely now,” this slight, gentle, 60-year-old man says, sitting in the kitchen of the Cool Aid-run rooming house where he lives downtown.

Dan’s story is sad, frustrating and remarkable.

It goes back to 1990, when his family fled his native Vietnam. After 2 1/2 years in a Thai refugee camp, they landed in Toronto, where Dan eventually became a Canadian citizen.

Around the end of 2000, his behaviour began to change. At one point, he told his brother Dan Tam Vo (we’ll call him Vo) that he was hearing voices in his head. Then Dan went missing for a long period, slipped right off the grid until he called home from the West Coast one day.

The family brought him back to Toronto — only to have him vanish again. “We looked for him everywhere,” Vo said. This time, Dan emerged in Montreal.

It was there in 2007 that the voices in his head led Dan to smash the window of his apartment. His aunt persuaded the landlord not to evict him, but then Dan broke the window again, resulting in the police hauling him off to hospital. After Dan’s release, Vo took him back to Toronto.

A few months later, Dan vanished once more, staying out of sight until March 2011 when he phoned from an Ottawa homeless shelter. He wouldn’t get in the car with his relatives when they drove there to fetch him, though. His brother said Dan didn’t want to burden them with the responsibility of caring for him.

Dan did eventually return to Toronto, staying there until late 2011 when, without warning, he simply disappeared again.

“Suddenly, he’s gone,” Vo recalled in an interview in February 2020. “The first year, we were looking everywhere.” The family scoured the streets of Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. A missing-persons report with the Toronto police turned up nothing. Vo pleaded with Dan’s bank to say if there was any activity in the account — Vo had sent Dan money — but the bank balked, citing confidentiality.

One night, Vo dreamed that his brother was dead. So did other family members. As time dragged on, they came to accept that their dreams were real.

But Dan wasn’t dead. He had gone first to Vancouver, where he spent a few months in a shelter, and then Victoria, where he spent more than seven years on the street.

He would later say he preferred the capital to Vancouver because Victoria is more compact, which is a big deal when you’re carrying all your possessions on your back.

In Victoria, his untreated schizophrenia left him unable to organize his life but still able to function well enough to survive without attracting attention. With no money, he slept outdoors and ate out of garbage cans. (What food did he scavenge from the bins? “Anything,” he now says.)

Dan was a familiar sight downtown but he caused no trouble, so stayed under the radar. He was quiet to the point of invisibility. Police were aware of him but for some reason that Toronto missing-person file never made it this far west.

All alone on the street, Dan was vulnerable to predators. He was stabbed. A punch to the face resulted in six stitches. A blow to the head during a third attack left him needing surgery. Each time, the revolving door spun him back into his solitary existence.

Finally, in late 2019, after his illness led him to smash the windshield of a car, he came into the care of VICOT, one of the Assertive Community Treatment multi-disciplinary teams — nurses, mental health workers, police, social workers, others — that watch over some of the most vulnerable, marginalized people in Victoria. He was taken to Royal Jubilee Hospital.

It’s there that the actions of a nurse reconnected Dan with the family that thought it had lost him forever. While on a computer in Our Place, Dan had come across a YouTube video in which an uncle in Houston, Texas, had left a phone number while posting information about a family funeral. The number stuck in Dan’s head. In hospital, he gave it to the nurse, who called Texas. Just like that, eight years after disappearing from Toronto without a trace, Dan had been found.

His overjoyed family couldn’t wait to bring Dan back to Ontario, where they planned to house him with a brother in Barrie. There was a problem, though. Dan had lost most of his identification papers, didn’t have the kind of documents required for air travel.

That’s not uncommon among homeless people, but usually case workers can help them rebuild what they need, starting with a birth certificate.

In Dan’s case, though, all he had was a Vietnamese birth certificate, an insufficient base for Canadian documents. No amount of effort by family, VICOT members, politicians or bureaucrats could overcome that hurdle. They were told it would take several months to undo the knots in the red tape. Dan’s brothers could have come to B.C. and taken him back by car when the winter roads allowed it, but medical professionals warned against subjecting him to that journey.

That’s where we left Dan in February 2020, sitting in the kitchen of Desmond House — that Cool Aid-run supportive-housing facility downtown — waiting, waiting, waiting for the documents that would allow him to be reunited with his family, half a continent away. Then the pandemic arrived, complicating things even more.

That same kitchen is where we pick up the story again this week. Dan is sitting there looking much as he did before: a slender, slightly stooped, quiet man in a grey sweatsuit.

In reality, though, much has changed in the past year and a half. Dan’s physical location might be the same, but he has come far in other ways. His health is better. VICOT is in his life. He no longer wants to go back to Ontario.

He lives in a small, tidy bachelor suite, one of Desmond House’s 27 units. He has a phone on which he talks to his mother in California once or twice a week, and an iPad on which he watches movies, mostly in Vietnamese. There’s a shower room, that communal kitchen, laundry, 24/7 support.

Once a week, he goes for lunch with some of the team that cares for him — pho, perhaps, or pizza.

He’s taking English lessons and learning to cook. He made rice and fish last week.

In September, he was visited by his mother, whom he had not seen in 13 years.

“I’m happy,” he says. “I’m more secure.”

The words don’t tumble out. Rather, they come slowly, sparely, after time to process the questions he is asked. That he contends with challenges that most of us don’t face is obvious.

But his life is so much better than it was before. “Outside is difficult,” he says, describing his old life. “The weather is difficult for me. It’s not safe in the streets.”

Today, he likes to walk to Chinatown, where he shops in the same grocery store in whose entrance he used to sleep at night. Then he walks home.

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