Rick Hofs didn’t leave much: a backpack, a pair of boots, a leather jacket, nail clippers, a pen, a ruler, a pocket knife.
Other belongings included a discharge paper from the hospital, a wallet with a bit of cash in it and one of those walkers the elderly use for balance.
It was the sight of the walker, adorned with a single Christmas ornament, that deflated his younger and only sibling, Louise Wilson.
Her brother was 49, not 79.
The fact he died Dec. 27 a frail homeless man behind a Marpole dollar store still doesn’t compute with Wilson. Not when she studies the photographs she kept of her once sturdy brother.
The oldest image is of a fit 19-year-old in a striped V-neck shirt and jeans. He’s sitting on a sofa with one of the family dogs at his feet. He’s got a full head of hair, a thick moustache and he’s smiling.
At 27, he’s in a muscle shirt and looks relaxed at a summer gathering in his parents’ backyard in Chilliwack. Same smile in that photo, too.
Four years later at 31, he’s in dress pants, a shirt and tie. His hands are in his pockets and he’s posing in front of a fireplace. This time, he’s got a confident grin.
The story connecting the images goes like this: A likeable young man grows up in Steveston. He has many friends. He has a steady girlfriend. He has a passion for restoring Dodge muscle cars. He becomes a skilled carpenter.
So how is it that Rick Hofs got so low?
It’s a question Wilson, who is two years younger than her brother, doesn’t have a complete answer to. She doesn’t know that she ever will. She’s been trying, though.
Since she received news of her brother’s death from a police officer, Wilson reached out to many in Marpole who knew Hofs as the homeless guy with the dog at 70th and Granville.
“I always hoped that he was married somewhere and he had a life,” she said by telephone from her Langley home. “To hear he was homeless was hard. And having to identify his body was the most horrible thing I’ve ever had to do.”
Wilson last saw her brother in 2002.
Hofs showed up unannounced at her house in Langley. He owned an old camper van at the time and had his pit bull cross Bandit with him.
“He looked very rough and he basically said I’ll call you in a bit and he was on his way to Vancouver,” she recalled. “He had everything packed in his van and he left.”
Wilson expected to hear from him again. Faithfully, every year, he would call her in April on her birthday. Those calls stopped.
She heard stories about him that worried her. She searched out his old friends and understood from one that Hofs was in Vancouver and doing fine.
Then she learned he was to appear in court. She didn’t know what for. She showed up several times at the Main Street courthouse but never found him.
Married with three children, she didn’t want to probe too deeply into her brother’s life because of what she described as “circumstances”; Wilson believed her brother was once caught up in a dangerous drug scene, although he never confided in her about his choices in life.
She doubted he shared any of his troubles with their parents, either. Her father died in 2007, her mother lives in Chilliwack and wants nothing to do with her “hobo” son’s funeral, according to Wilson, who, like her brother, was adopted and didn’t have an ideal relationship with her parents.
Stories going around Marpole that Hofs was once married and had a child are hard to believe for Wilson. She’d like to think that was the case, but she has no proof. She knows her brother had a girlfriend when he was in his 20s but she left after a few years. The breakup crushed him.
“I believe he had a broken heart, which led him to drugs, which led him to alcohol and astray into bad things. But it didn’t make him a bad person.”
Now divorced, Wilson purposely kept the same phone number and remained in the same house in Langley, hoping her brother would call or drop in.
“He knew where I was,” said Wilson, who works as a credit administrator at a home improvement store. “At any point, he could have picked up the phone and I would have come and got him. As long as he was clean and away from that stuff, he would have had a home with me.”
Wilson learned more about her brother last Thursday after 80 people attended a memorial for Hofs at Marpole Place on 70th Avenue.
Single moms, seniors, the homeless, young kids, the disabled, a letter carrier, a pastor, the owner of the dollar store where he died and various people of ethnic backgrounds packed the small space.
They shared stories, sang songs, laughed and cried over the better part of an hour as Wilson, dressed in black, sat on a piano bench at the front of the room to take it all in.
Two of her adult daughters were there, too, driven to tears like their mom, who was clearly moved by the outpouring of friendship from the guests.
Build a transition house in Marpole for homeless people and name it after Hofs, said Nikita Williams, who likened the homeless man to a father.
Put up a plaque in his memory outside the dollar store, said Lelan Shaffer, who started a shrine outside Amy’s Loonie Toonie Town after learning of his friend’s death.
“If you look around this room today, each one of us has a different story about Rick,” said Heather Pieters, sharing how Hofs looked out for her two teenaged boys. “The fact is one person changed Marpole for many of us. We should remember that as we step outside these doors today — a homeless person actually touched our lives.”
One man attempted to sing the old standard “I believe,” which begins with the lyrics “I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows. I believe that somewhere in the darkest night, a candle glows.”
He was overcome with emotion and couldn’t get through it. Wayne Tomlinson took the microphone and finished the song, his voice soaring as he hit the final note.
Clarence Gardner, an old friend with a big soulful voice, pulled out his guitar and played a poignant version of the Beatles’ “I’ll be back.”
It was all a very special but sad afternoon for Cathie Higgins, who has lived in the neighbourhood for 10 years. She last saw Hofs a few days before Christmas.
With her grandson in tow, she dropped off a gift for Hofs: two packs of cigarettes, $5, a Japanese orange and some candies.
Hofs was sitting outside 7-Eleven. He took Higgins’ hands and squeezed them tight and thanked her for being so good to him.
“That was my last memory of Rick,” said Higgins before her voice trailed off and she began to cry. “I want the public to know this was a man who was loved and recognized by many. He touched many hearts. He was a good man, a polite man.”
Higgins is a volunteer at Marpole Place and told Hofs the building opened up at night as a shelter. He wasn’t interested in coming inside. It was an answer he gave to many he came to know in the neighbourhood.
The B.C. Coroners Service continues to investigate how Hofs died but police determined it was not suspicious.
It was clear from stories at the ceremony that Hofs’ health declined rapidly over the past few years. There was talk of him being hit by a car and that he was prone to seizures. He’d also lost a considerable amount of weight.
His friends recalled his love for vodka, beer and cigarettes — up to a 40-pounder of alcohol per day and two packs of smokes, according to Chris Krishnan, who lived briefly with Hofs in a rooming house at 67th and Granville.
“Man, I tell you, you can’t do that for a long time,” said Krishnan as he left the ceremony with friends.
When Hofs first arrived in Marpole, he lived in the van his sister last saw him in until Krishnan spotted him in the neighbourhood.
“He was parking here and parking there and he didn’t know the neighbourhood very well, so I told him to come live with me,” said Krishnan, also formerly homeless.
Once settled, Hofs got work as a carpenter through a temporary labour service. He seemed happy, Krishnan recalled, noting he also loved to read — everything from Dan Brown to John Steinbeck to the Bible; one friend said Hofs was reading the Joy Luck Club the week before he died.
Hofs didn’t stay in the house long and chose to live under the Oak Street Bridge. There he met a man who would only identify himself to the Courier as Paul.
“Me, him and the dog,” says Paul, standing with Krishnan on a sidewalk outside Marpole Place. “We both had our own tents, our own cooking supplies.”
Paul boasted about Hofs’ skills as a carpenter but said his friend stopped working about four years ago. The booze, he said, took over.
Krishnan, who has been clean for five years, spoke to Hofs recently about rehab and urged him to get shelter.
“I told him I could get him help, get him detox,” he said. “It sounded nice to him and he was kind of all for it, but he changed his mind.”
Added Paul: “Lots of people tried to help him and he just didn’t want it.”
Friend Dianne Elliott believes Hofs’ decline was connected to the loss of his dog, Bandit. Someone stole the pit bull cross about four years ago, around the same time Hofs stopped working.
Elliott and many others put up posters, posted ads online and phoned the Lower Mainland pounds in an effort to find Bandit.
“He was never the same after Bandit was taken,” she said. “He deteriorated quite quickly. Sometimes he would sob uncontrollably. He missed the dog so much.”
Before Bandit vanished, Elliott took a photograph of the dog sharing a blanket with Hofs outside the Royal Bank. Hofs looked rough but still managed a grin. Bandit, nose up, sat as regal as a dog could.
Elliott sent Wilson a copy.
A large version was on display next to the condolences book. A handful of wallet-sized copies were scattered on a table for anybody who wanted one.
As the ceremony came to a close, and the staff prepared to transform the room into a shelter for the evening, Wilson stood at the door to thank the guests.
In between handshakes and hugs, she tried to digest the past three weeks and the overwhelming kindness she was shown by her brother’s friends.
They gave her answers to some of her questions and walked her around to the various spots Hofs hung out, drank, read and slept.
“I feel humbled, I really do,” she said as the remaining guests exited into the sunshine. “To me he wasn’t homeless, to me he should have never been homeless. He was a person who got lost in the cracks and survived as best he could. But after hearing all this today, I know he had a life.”