'He so knew how to express love:' remembering Jim Heiberg

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'He so knew how to express love:' remembering Jim Heiberg

'He so knew how to express love:' remembering Jim Heiberg

Jim Heiberg's earliest memory was his mom hoisting him and his brother through the broken window of a gas station so he could steal cigarettes for her. He was just five years old.

"When the cops came around too often, she kicked us out," Jim told me the first time we met.

It was February 2009 and I'd been assigned to spend a day with Jim for a CBC Radio series about homelessness. I didn't know what to expect when Judy Graves, Vancouver's longtime homeless advocate, introduced me to the man who lived in her back alley.

Life on the streets

At the time, Jim was known as "Brutus" for his tough demeanor and resemblance to the Popeye character. But Jim was also warm, gracious and disarmingly honest about his circumstances and the path that led him there, starting with that difficult childhood.

There was also a stint in prison as a teen, followed by many years on the street, and an ongoing struggle with alcoholism. I found myself drawn to Jim's story and would come back to it again and again, until his death on May 26, 2018 at age 58.

Jim made many connections in his years roaming Vancouver's alleys, collecting empties in an old suitcase.

"He was so genuine," says Pastor Bob Swann, who befriended Jim 19 years ago when he wandered into the First Baptist Church's shelter program on a cold, wet night.

"He so knew how express love and thankfulness. He taught us all what it means to be homeless, the struggle with addiction — but he never let it change his heart."

A life-changing friendship

The pastor became like a father to Jim. In 2000 and 2009, Bob invited Jim to move in with his family, on the condition Jim give up drinking.

The arrangement lasted about six months each time, but the pattern of addiction and street life proved tough to break. Jim then cycled in and out of recovery houses and shelters, but spent most of his time living in what he described as his "cubbyhole" — the alley.

Eventually, Jim dropped the nickname "Brutus" and worked hard on cleaning up so he could spend more time helping out his church.

He also began losing his short-term memory as years of "sleeping rough" took its toll.

Through it all, Judy Graves was determined to find permanent housing from Jim, even after she officially retired in 2013.

"He was, in some ways, a little boy," says Judy. "So, leaving him there...it was like leaving a kid in an alley....it broke my heart."

Through what she calls a "series of miracles," in 2014, Jim eventually moved into a new supportive housing complex.

At home, at last

The Kettle on Burrard Street stands across from Saint Paul's Hospital, where Jim could access much-needed health services. Most important, it's a stone's throw from First Baptist Church and Pastor Bob.

Their deep bond, and support from other church members like Thomas Nairne, helped Jim adjust to life "inside."

He made good on that promise to volunteer at his church, helping out four to five times a week. Jim was in the First Baptist parking lot when he collapsed May 21, and was brought to Saint Paul's. And when he took his last breath a few days later, Bob and Thomas were at Jim's side.

"To be honest, that was an answer to prayer" says Bob, who for 19 years worried Jim would die alone in a back alley. "He was happy," says Thomas.

"He had his friends around him, he didn't leave alone...we will always remember him."

Jim Heiberg lived at the Kettle for less than four years, but they were important ones, says Judy Graves.

"During that time Jim had discovered that he in fact was loved and he was giving love back. And that's a high point for any human life." She says that Jim was able to appreciate life in ways that people who seem to have it better often miss.

Jim's legacy

Judy says Jim's legacy is huge because of how he opened people's minds about what it's like to be homeless, and because he showed how love and compassion can change a life, even when the road can seem interminably long and difficult.

"We all encountered our best self and our worst self in Jim."

There are many stories about Jim. But one stands out for me.

Although Jim's relationship with his mother was difficult, when he found out she had died and was buried in an unmarked grave, he worked hard to buy her a beautiful headstone. Then he flew to Toronto to sit at her burial place to honour her, because he thought it was the right thing to do.

JIm felt like he'd won the lottery when he'd found what he proudly called "his humble abode" at the Kettle. But there are many others like him still searching for a home.

If he were still with us, Jim would be the first to say not giving up on them is the right thing to do.