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Loved Ones Lost: Death of a Downtown Poet

Mel Hennan drew a community to him with his art, activism and cheerful embrace of life.

By Jackie Wong 19 May 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Jackie Wong is a freelance writer in Vancouver. She has reported widely on social justice and equality issues. She is a former editor of Megaphone, a social enterprise that publishes a magazine to provide meaningful work to people experiencing poverty, and a former Tyee Solutions Society housing reporter. She is on the board of directors of the Hua Foundation, a non-profit connecting Asian-Canadian youth with cultural heritage and social change.

On most mornings for years, Mel Hennan would ride the bus from his residence in the Jubilee Rooms, a single-room occupancy hotel near Main and Cordova, get off on Burrard Street and take a short walk to the Dr. Peter Centre near Nelson Park in Vancouver’s West End. Home to the only HIV/AIDS day health program in B.C., the Dr. Peter Centre initially opened in St. Paul’s Hospital in 1997 and moved to its current standalone location in 2003. Hennan was one of the centre’s first clients. It was a place he described as “A sanctuary. A home away from home,” when he photographed the centre as part of a 2012 photography project.

Hennan would arrive in the morning to eat breakfast and participate in recreation, music therapy, and counselling programs. “Good morning, Mel!” he’d say to recreation therapist Melissa Clave-Brulé. “Good morning, Mel!” she’d reply.

They greeted each other like that for five and a half years, the entire time that Clave-Brulé has worked there. She remembers a gentle, compassionate person who enjoyed art, music, and being with people. In her work, she knows the inverse of that too well. “There’s so many people that are just so isolated. So horribly sick. And so horribly lonely,” she says.

She appreciated Hennan’s quiet determination to show up, day after day. “The shame is gargantuan. For somebody to say, ‘Good morning, I’m here’—yes, this is all my crap laid out on the table, and these are all the strikes against me. But I got out of bed today and I’m here. And I’m ready to work, to get help, to try and make sure that I’m eating, that I’m taking my medicine, that I’m willing to live.” This, she felt, was huge.

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“If he found something funny, and he often found something funny, he’d melt. His eyes would disappear. Tears would come down,” says Kimberly Azyan, Mel’s adoptive sister. This photograph, taken on a trip to Mario’s Gelato in about 2015, reminds her of that. Photo courtesy of Kimberly Azyan.

It’s important, Clave-Brulé says, to put a face to the struggle and complication of B.C.’s overdose crisis that is killing hundreds of people. “People paint such broad strokes of them or us,” she says. That kind of divisiveness, she adds, prevents us from seeing “the happiness that people bring, or the struggle that they’ve had. The hard work that they’re in every day to improve their lives and improve other people’s life.”

Because alongside hardship, she adds, there’s “the fabulous stuff” alive in everybody. Mel Hennan, say those who knew and loved him, had much fabulous stuff alive in him to share.

Friends celebrated Hennan’s appreciation for beauty and his joyous approach to life at a late-January memorial at Jacob’s Well, a faith-based non-profit in the Downtown Eastside. They sang “Imagine,” “Hallelujah,” and “Let it Be.”

A lonely death

Mel Hennan died on Boxing Day 2016, alone in his room at the Jubilee, of what is presumed to be an opioid overdose. Mel had used heroin for years and, in 2004, was president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.

It’s not clear if fentanyl contributed to his death, or how and when he was found. The coroner’s investigation into his death is not yet closed, so a coroner’s report is unavailable. There has been such a high volume of overdose deaths in the province that the BC Coroner’s Service is overloaded, causing delays in getting information to families.

We do know that Hennan was one of the 216 people who died of overdoses in Vancouver that year, and one of the record-breaking 931 in B.C. He was one of the 571 people in the province who had died in a private residence, which constitutes most overdose deaths in the province.

The Coroner’s Service has been busy. So have our city morgues. Despite the robust community that populated his life, Hennan’s body went unclaimed for weeks.

“I guess everybody thought somebody else was contacting family,” says Kimberly Azyan, Hennan’s adoptive older sister. She was devastated to discover her brother had died the day after he visited her house for Christmas in New Westminster. When she hadn’t heard from him for a while, she emailed him several times at the address he checked frequently, leaving messages that were never returned.

She was about to call the Jubilee Rooms when she heard from her niece that Mel had died. Her niece had received condolences out of the blue and was heartbroken by the news. By then, it was already early February.

Kimberly Azyan shares about Mel.

“One of the ripple effects of a crisis like this is the coroner, the police, they’re so overwhelmed, they’re not able to get through their job,” Azyan says.

“We’ve got to be more compassionate and considerate on the death. Make sure that just because you’re Downtown Eastside doesn’t mean the normal efforts aren’t done,” she says.

“I can’t imagine that a young, healthy woman found overdosed in an alley would’ve just been left in a morgue for several weeks before somebody would have bothered to Google her name.”

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“The Ft McPherson school was right next to our house and our kids played in the school yard, even on the weekends,” Shane Hennan says. Mel’s adoptive sister, Shirley, is on the left, with her biological brother in the middle. Mel is in boots. “I helped Mel up but he jumped off because he wanted to climb up himself,” Shane remembers. Photo courtesy of Kimberly Azyan.

Beginnings

The Hennan family met five-year-old Melvin Raddi in 1968. By then, Shane and Joan Hennan had two young daughters, Kimberly and Pamela. Shane, a retired RCMP officer, was stationed in Fort McPherson, a Northwest Territories community so remote that there were no roads in or out. The Hennans ordered groceries once a year, which would arrive by barge in the fall.

When Shane was 33, he and his wife decided that they had completed their family. They travelled to Inuvik, the nearest municipality, and went to the hospital for Shane to get a vasectomy.

Joan noticed a small boy in the hospital. It was Mel. His stomach was enlarged, and he could barely walk. She asked the nurses what had happened. They had found him on an outreach visit to Sachs Harbour, the remote community where he was born that lacked its own nurses. The visiting nurses found that Mel was very sick. He was one of the middle boys of nine children: seven boys, two girls.

“Through lack of community intervention I was taken as a ward of the government of the Northwest Territories,” Mel later wrote of his early life, sometime in 2012, when he was part of a community research project to better understand people living with HIV/AIDS. The nurses brought him back to Inuvik with them, where he stayed in the hospital until the Hennans found him.

“My wife at the time, she said, ‘Would you let him come with us, out to Fort McPherson?’” Shane recalls. “And they said, ‘Oh yeah, sure.’ There didn’t seem to be any paperwork or anything.”

Joan and Shane took him home, and welcomed him into the family. He was a cheerful kid from the beginning, they say. But he was often sick. “When he first came, my mom was always tenting the bottom bunk bed and putting the humidifier in,” Kimberly remembers. “He was prone to pneumonia and all that kind of stuff.”

Azyan and her father remember his enthusiasm for becoming involved with the day-to-day life of their family. “He wanted to be included,” Shane remembers. “He loved cleaning,” Azyan adds. “He would cry because he couldn’t get his chance to do the dishes.”

Two years later, when Mel was eight in 1970, Shane transferred out of the RCMP detachment in Fort McPherson to Surrey, B.C.

Before he left, he got in touch with the public health nurse to ask if they could formally adopt Mel. They planned to adopt him as a Hennan, and they wanted to keep his middle name, Kowikchuk. “We thought we should try to maintain his roots,” Shane says.

“My wife said, ‘Is that alright?’” he remembers, of what they asked of the nurse in Inuvik. “Oh yeah,” she said. “That would be great.”

Shane remembers asking, “Well, wouldn’t his parents have something to say about this?” He says the nurse replied, ‘No, I’m afraid not. No.’”

He hates to think that people would adopt children for monetary gain. “That’s the wrong idea. Take them because you love them,” he says. “He was our own kid as far as we were concerned.”

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Mel (middle) and his siblings during a Fort McPherson winter. Photo courtesy of Kimberly Azyan.

At the time, there was no public conversation about white families adopting Indigenous children. The Hennans took in another Indigenous girl, Shirley, who was a friend of Pamela’s and wanted to stay with them overnight, then on weekends, and eventually to move to Surrey with them.

Shane knows now that the situation is much more complicated. Back then, though, he was operating out of generosity: our house, he thought, is yours.

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Eight-year-old Mel (left) and his sisters Pamela (middle) and Shirley (right) in the hayloft of Great Uncle Jimmy’s family farm in Olds, Alberta. Photo courtesy of Kimberly Azyan.

A vendor and writer

The family later moved from Surrey to Aldergrove, where Mel went to high school. He briefly joined the military at 16, but soon quit because it wasn’t for him. After he graduated, the family moved to Abbotsford, where Mel worked a number of jobs delivering pizza, at a restaurant, managing deliveries for a warehouse, and running a gravel pit in Chilliwack.

But the Fraser Valley wasn’t the place for him. “He found that life in Abbotsford was really boring, and it wasn’t long before he moved to Vancouver,” Shane remembers. They kept in touch as much as they could. “He remembered every occasion. Every anniversary, everybody’s birthday.”

Mel also got in touch with one of his biological sisters later in life. They reunited in Vancouver around 2009.

The Downtown Eastside community was central to Mel’s years in Vancouver. He was open about his heroin addiction and HIV status with his family, but he didn’t share much about it. He was proud, Azyan says, of the Hope in Shadows calendar project, a photography contest and social enterprise in the Downtown Eastside community. Mel was a Hope in Shadows calendar vendor, and would sell calendars to his sister each year. He started submitting poetry to Hope in Shadows’ sister organization, Megaphone, and was published in its literary anthology in 2015. That’s how I came to know him. He was a bright presence at Megaphone every time he came to visit. Here are some lines from one his poems, “The Bridge”:


When I think of you

I think of the sun!
Shining brighter and clearer with every new day
Shining, shining, brighter and brighter with clarity.
Clarity of an infinite amount of diamonds
Your diamond eyes so merrily dancing with me.

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Mel outside the Megaphone office in spring 2015, posing for an author photo for Voices of the Street, Megaphone’s literary anthology. Photo by Jackie Wong.

Beyond his cheerfulness, his sister knew that Mel struggled throughout his life, but she never knew specifically what it was about. Four years older, she had already moved out of the house by the time Mel was a teenager.

She doesn’t think he had serious mental health challenges, though she knew about his addiction and HIV. She and her family accepted that; they wanted him to know they loved him, and opened their doors to him whenever they could.

Azcyan also knew her brother to be quickly overwhelmed by new responsibilities. “He had all the ability. But if it got too much, he’d just fold and burn,” she says.

He had to understand himself by learning as much about health as he could. He attended public workshops on Asperger’s Syndrome and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Over lunches with his sister near her office downtown, Mel would wonder out loud if he had one or both.

He never received an official diagnosis.

‘What he wanted was people’

The Hennan family last saw Mel on Christmas Day 2016, when he took the SkyTrain to Azyan’s house in New Westminster. They had dinner, and the plan was for Mel to stay overnight so that they could drive together to their sister Pamela’s the next day.

“When he showed up, he said, ‘I can’t do it. I’ll be going back. And I’ll come back on Boxing Day,’” Azyan says. This wasn’t unusual. Azyan knew that her brother sometimes changed plans at the last minute. After all, she knows that long hours with family can be draining for anyone.

Her husband drove Mel to the SkyTrain station and he went home. “And then Boxing Day came, and we didn’t get any call for him and he didn’t show up,” Azyan remembers. That wasn’t concerning, either; after all, there were snow warnings across Metro Vancouver. They ended up snowed in, and couldn’t go to Pamela’s, either.

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Shane Hennan remembers his correspondences with Mel, pictured here the Hennan family home. “Every time we entered a conversation, he’d say, “I’m doing alright, Dad.” Photo courtesy of Kimberly Azyan.

In the weeks that followed, they didn’t hear from Mel. They learned, after hearing he’d died, that someone had taken his backpack with their Christmas presents for him. What remained were his large of volume of journals and a recent Christmas card from Shane.

In his journals, he meticulously documented birthdays and anniversaries, appointments, and conversations he’d had with the many people in his life. He wrote about long stretches of insomnia, about his love for his family, and how he wanted to become a more confident person.

“What he wanted, more than anything was people. Community. And he grew in several of them,” Azyan says.

“I really didn’t understand his life here. I knew he had friends. But I had no idea of the community of friends that he had,” Shane adds. He’s overwhelmed to know so many people thought him of so kindly.

The final pages of Mel’s last journal, which he kept until late December, are filled with entries about people who died in 2016. His sister says he often drew hearts in the margins.

“I was just trying to let them know it was okay,” he wrote.

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In fall 2016 during Hope in Shadows calendar season, this photo was taken in what became Mel’s final months of life. Photo courtesy of Megaphone.

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