For eight gut-wrenching years, Dan Thanh Vo’s family thought he was dead.
Then, in November, came the stunning news: Dan, living with severe mental illness, had been found on the streets in Victoria, half a continent away from where he had disappeared.
And then came the frustration. As desperate as his family is to bring Dan home to Ontario, red tape has stranded him here, unable to travel.
After all those lonely years of sleeping in Chinatown doorways, eating out of garbage cans, being stabbed and beaten, and trying to cope with untreated schizophrenia in a friendless world, a lack of identification documents has grounded him here, unable to fly home.
“I hope to have ID with pictures so I can go back to Ontario,” he says in a quiet voice, sitting in the downtown rooming house where he has lived since late November. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of his family, mental-health workers, politicians and bureaucrats, the documents he needs remain elusive. He turns 60 this year.
His story goes back to 1990 when his family fled Vietnam, where he was born. They spent 2 1/2 years in a Thai refugee camp before settling in Toronto, where Dan eventually gained Canadian citizenship. Today, he has two brothers in Ontario — one in Milton, near Toronto, the other in Barrie — another brother in the U.S. and two sisters in Vietnam.
It was around the end of 2000 that Dan’s behaviour began to change. At one point, he told his brother Dan Tam Vo — whom we’ll call Vo — that he was hearing voices in his head. Dan went missing for a long period, then called from the West Coast. The family brought him back to Toronto, only to have him disappear again. “We looked for him everywhere,” Vo said. Dan emerged in Montreal.
It was in 2007 while Dan was in Montreal that, listening to the voice in his head, he smashed the window of his apartment. His aunt paid for the damage, and persuaded the landlord not to kick him out, but then Dan broke the window again. After police took Dan to hospital, Vo brought him back to Toronto.
A few months later, Dan vanished once more, staying off the grid until March 2011, when he phoned from an Ottawa homeless shelter. His relatives drove to Ottawa but Dan balked at coming back with them; Vo says Dan didn’t want to burden them with giving him the help he needed.
Dan eventually relented, though. The family bought him a bus ticket back to Toronto, where he hung in for awhile before, out of the blue, disappearing again one day in late 2011.
“Suddenly, he’s gone,” Vo said.
“The first year, we were looking everywhere.” They scoured the streets of Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. Vo tried to file a missing persons complaint with the Ottawa police, but they told him to go to their Toronto counterparts instead, which he did. No luck. He pleaded with Dan’s bank to let him know if there was any activity in the account — Vo had sent Dan money — but the bank refused, citing confidentiality.
Eventually, Vo had a dream that his brother was dead. So did other family members. As time dragged on with no word of Dan, they came to accept that it was true.
He wasn’t dead, though. He had gone first to Vancouver, where he spent a few months in a shelter, and then Victoria. “It’s better for me to be here because Vancouver is so big,” Dan says. When you carry all your possessions on your back, a compact community is better.
In Victoria, his untreated schizophrenia left him unable to organize his life, but still able to function well enough to survive without attracting too much attention. He was a fixture in Chinatown, and police were aware of him, but for some reason the Toronto missing-person file never popped up.
It was a hard life. “I have no money,” Dan says. He slept in doorways. “I eat food in the garbage cans.”
All alone, he was vulnerable. He was stabbed once, and on another occasion needed six stitches after being punched in the face. He took a blow to the head in a third attack, requiring surgery. Each time, he ended up back on to the street.
He finally came into the care of VICOT, a multi-agency team that works with the most vulnerable people on Victoria’s streets, last year. In November, after his illness caused Dan to act out — “I smashed the windshield of a car” — he was taken to Royal Jubilee Hospital.
That’s where the actions of a nurse proved key. While on a computer in Our Place, Dan had come across a YouTube video in which an uncle in Houston, Texas had posted information about a family funeral, including his phone number. The number stuck in Dan’s head. In hospital, he gave it to the nurse, who called his uncle in Texas. Dan had been found.
The family was overjoyed. Vo describes his own reaction: “I’m shaking. I’m shaking like crazy. I’m so happy.”
His relatives couldn’t wait to bring Dan back to Ontario, safe with his brother in Barrie.
But then a problem cropped up. Dan has no proper identification, and anyone travelling by plane, bus or train must produce government-issued photo ID or two pieces of government-issued ID, one of which must include the person’s name and date of birth.
It’s not uncommon for homeless people to lack such papers, a problem those who work with them can usually remedy by digging up foundation documents, starting with a birth certificate.
In Dan’s case, though, all he had was a Vietnamese birth certificate — not good enough to allow ICBC to issue a B.C. services card with a photo. Dan’s Canadian citizenship card is missing. He has photocopies of other documents, such as a Quebec health card, but they’re out of date and, by the rules, unacceptable. He now has a B.C. health card without a photo, but nothing else; until recently a fishing licence would have been deemed an acceptable second piece of non-photo government ID, allowing him onto a plane, but no longer.
Vo says the VICOT team, which helped place Dan in Desmond House, where Cool Aid has 27 units for people with mental illness, has been working hard for his brother. They have submitted attestations that Dan is who he says he is. MLA Carole James’s office has tried to help, without success.
So now those advocating on Dan’s behalf have begun another process, putting together a package they hope will spur federal authorities to reissue those missing citizenship papers. That can be drawn-out process, though; the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada website talks of six-month waits.
In Ontario, Dan’s brothers are anxious. They could fly out and drive him back to Ontario when the snow is gone, but have been told that the rigours of a multi-day road trip mean it would be far preferable for him to fly. They hope Dan’s circumstances will expedite the immigration-papers process.
In Victoria, Dan sits in his rooming house, waiting to go home.