“My dad beat my mom until she was a rag doll,” says 49-year-old Billy. “At times I thought he would kill her. That’s only one of my childhood memories.”
Billy’s dad was drunk all the time. And his heavy drinking resulted in physical altercations. Every night Billy cranked up the volume on his radio to fall asleep. The music muffled the terrifying screams of his mom as she was punched and kicked by his dad. “He beat her over anything,” says Billy.
Billy lived in constant fear. More times than he’d like to remember Billy’s dad forced him to hold damaged household electrical cords or put his fingers in light sockets while his father inserted the plug in the outlet. The pain was unbearable — and Billy wasn’t allowed to cry. If he did, a beating followed. “I learned to be tough,” says Billy.
Due to his problem drinking, Billy’s dad never worked and his mom’s income was barely enough to put a roof over the family of eight. “We were dirt poor,” says Billy. “There was little food and my clothes came from The Salvation Army Thrift Store.”
At age seven, Billy was offered a chance to attend a Salvation Army summer camp. Says Billy: “God answered my desperate prayers and removed me from the abuse.” For the next five consecutive years Billy was able to be a kid for a week, feel safe, and relax and laugh.
Meanwhile Billy tried to numb the pain of his tumultuous home life. At age five he drank his first whiskey. At age eight he ran away from home. By age 12, illegal street drugs were his antidepressants and he was stealing to feed his habit. Out of control, he was sent to reform school.
Then Billy was homeless. He preferred living on the streets over home. He joined a gang where he enjoyed the feeling of caring and attention he’d lacked all his life.
But with gang life, came senseless violence. One day Billy was ordered to beat up someone — anyone. His unsuspecting victim was a middle-aged man in a pub washroom. Following the brutal attack, paramedics were called. A waitress told Billy his victim was a single dad who was raising five kids. Billy was so ashamed.
That day Billy saw gang life in a different light. He had to find a way out. But the brutal truth of gang life is that the only way most gang members leave the gang is in a body bag. So Billy vanished. For the next five years he never let his guard down.
When Billy resurfaced he lived in a tent in a relative’s back yard. Still deeply entrenched in drugs and alcohol he drank until he passed out. “Then I took drugs to wake up,” says Billy, “and do it all over again. That was a cycle my whole life.”
Billy’s bad choices began to affect his cousin’s family and he was asked to vacate the premises. He soon found himself on the doorstep of The Salvation Army Harbour Light in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Here, the primary objective is to assist men and women who are without shelter, and/or whose lives have become dysfunctional because of addiction to chemical substances.
“The Army believed in me when I couldn’t see to believe in myself,” says Billy.
That was seven years ago and Billy has been clean ever since. He has moved on to a better, peaceful life and is employed at the Harbour Light as its shipping/receiving/food procurement manager.
In 2009 Billy won The Salvation Army’s “Courage to Change” award.
“Before, I existed,” says Billy. “Now, I live to help others survive.”