Bill’s buoyant demeanor conceals the unimaginable struggles he has faced in his lifetime. He’s a charming, articulate man who is quick to crack a joke and even quicker to invite you to play a game of backgammon.
Raised in Toronto in a large family with “no rules, no structure and too much booze,” Bill turned to petty crime as a teenager. He moved to BC at 19 to get away from his unstable family life, and quickly fell into using drugs and drinking excessively.
It wasn’t long until Bill was arrested for the property crime he was committing to fund his drug habit. From the day he was first sentenced, he never spent more than 30 days out of prison for the next 17 years. Bill began using IV drugs in prison at the age of 23 where he says sharing needles was common.
“I had no idea how to live any differently,” Bill says. “I’d serve a two year sentence, be out of jail for three days, and then get arrested and sent back to jail again. I was totally institutionalized -- I didn’t even know how to rent an apartment.”
A darkly comic twist of fate finally ended Bill’s cycle of re-incarceration. Out of jail for the final time and desperate for money to feed his drug addiction, Bill decided to rob a bank. He had a target, a plan, and was on his way to act when he realized it was Sunday. The bank was closed.
“It was a rock bottom moment,” he says. “I just realized how desperate I was. I thought ‘Enough is enough - it’s time I go to detox.’”
When he arrived at the detox facility, all of the beds were full. An employee, sensing Bill’s desperation, invited him in for a cup of coffee. While he was drinking his second cup, someone unexpectedly checked out of the centre. Bill was given the spot. It was the detox doctor who diagnosed Bill with HIV.“I’d gone into detox hoping to change my life and now it seemed my life was over,” Bill says. “It was very hard to accept.”
But his life wasn’t over and he learned to move forward. He began working for Spare Change newspaper (now Megaphone) and volunteering for local AIDS organizations. He still struggled, but he didn’t feel hopeless or alone anymore.
“I started to have some direction and more faith in myself,” he says. “I learned that I’m not as bad as I’d made myself out to be.”
Several years ago, Bill began attending the Day Health program at the Dr. Peter Centre at the suggestion of a friend. He hadn’t been taking care of his health or eating as well as he should, and the Centre gave him the support he needed to prioritize his health. Last year, due to increasingly challenging health problems, Bill moved in to the Dr. Peter Centre Residence.
“It was hard to be here at first,” he says. “I was so scared of being in “an institution” again, but this place is like home. I don’t want for anything. I couldn’t ask for anything more out of life.”
Bill says he spent a lot of time being angry at himself about his past, but those days are long behind him. These days he just feels grateful for his life and the compassion, friendship and care at the Dr. Peter Centre.
“I know it takes a whole lot of caring people to keep this place going,” he says. “It’s not easy to care about people like us so I’m very grateful for everyone who does.”
Bill passed away in March 2016.