Salvation Army cook Gary De Angelis always passes a word with every person he serves meals to at the Gateway of Hope. Even though many patrons do not return his cheer, De Angelis knows from personal experience that being treated with dignity can make all the difference to someone who is homeless.

Salvation Army cook Gary De Angelis always passes a word with every person he serves meals to at the Gateway of Hope. Even though many patrons do not return his cheer, De Angelis knows from personal experience that being treated with dignity can make all the difference to someone who is homeless.

‘To be a light on this side of the glass’

In Part One of a Langley Times series on homelessness, a former homeless man gives back to the Gateway of Hope with his new-found passion

There’s hardly a place in the City of Langley that Gary De Angelis isn’t recognized.

Standing tall in a white chef’s coat, the Gateway of Hope cook hears hellos on every street he walks down and in every business he walks in to. But the greetings that mean the most to him, come from those standing in the buffet line at the Gateway of Hope cafeteria.

“To be a light on this side of the glass,” De Angelis said, while comfortably seated in an upstairs boardroom at the Salvation Army’s homeless shelter.

“Because I used to be on the other side taking the tray, taking the soup, taking the sandwich, not always saying thank you. You know, I’d grunt into my coffee, sit down, and just was not really happy.

“To be the one handing out the soup, handing out the sandwich. I know 80 per cent of the patrons who come here by name. It’s ‘Hey, Joe, how are you doing? Hey, Frank.’ And I just pass a word with everyone who’s passing by me, just briefly. To me, I get so many people coming up to me and saying ‘You know your food is excellent, but your personality is even better.’

“It feels great.”

It’s hard to imagine that just over two years ago, De Angelis was fighting his own battle with homelessness.

‘I Refused To Stop Working’

His struggle began with a bad workplace accident in 1998. After spending a career working physical labour jobs in construction and warehousing, he could not accept that he had to stop.

“I refused to stop working,” De Angelis said.

“I was supposed to stop, but I refused. And I continued on until about five years ago. The doctor’s like, ‘If you want to be in a wheelchair when you’re 50, keep going.’ And I said, ‘You know what, I don’t really want to be in a wheelchair.’ So I went on disability, and that was kind of the start of me losing who I was.”

Not long after, he and his wife separated — and with nowhere to go — De Angelis turned to the streets, leaving his two young children and former life behind. For months he bounced around from shelter to shelter.

“About two and a half, three years ago I ended up again here at the (Gateway of Hope) shelter,” he said.

“Only this time I was addicted to opiates, and homeless, an alcoholic and in really bad shape. So that was about a year’s worth of that, and it wasn’t a lot of fun. A year’s worth of sleeping under bridges and in garages, underground parking. Coming here for a meal once a day, the odd time staying in a shelter.

“But being a drug addict, you don’t want to be indoors, you want to be free to do what you want to do, which ruined my life.”

‘It Was Like A Bolt Of Lightning’

Around Christmas two years ago, De Angelis was standing outside of the Safeway in Langley City when he spotted his son and daughter with their mom.

“My daughter came up to me and said, ‘Dad I can’t hug you, you’re insane.’ Broke my heart — that’s my little girl. And that still didn’t help.”

For four more months De Angelis continued to “float through life,” and finally, after being awake for eight days straight on “a manic drug run,” he decided he was done.

“After eight days while standing outside 7-Eleven at about 11 o’clock at night, my kids found me begging for change, trying to sell drugs. And (my daughter) came up and just broke down. And she was in her mom’s car. She was crying. It was raining. I had friends with me, and we were just a raging mess. And I just broke down in the middle of the park.

“It was like a bolt of lightning. Just after she left, I went to the park — to City Park by the casino — and I pulled out my drugs, and I tried to smoke them, and I just couldn’t do it. I was like, ‘I’m worth living.’ And I came here.”

De Angelis spent the first two days at the Gateway of Hope replenishing his sleep and diet, and was soon moved into a recovery house. He spent four months there, and was transferred to the Band of Brothers recovery house in Surrey, where he enrolled in a cooking class.

After eight months of being clean and sober, he contacted the Salvation Army to ask about their culinary arts and opportunities programs.

“I realized that I could serve using my cooking skills,” De Angelis said.

“And life really started to turn around for me.”

‘We Want To See Change’

De Angelis took part in 40 hours of classes per week, moved back home with his wife and kids, who are now both 13, and graduated with 91.2 per cent in the program.

In November he was hired as a casual cook by the Salvation Army, and today has moved up to part-time cook.

“I could not be where I am without the Salvation Army’s help,” De Angelis said.

“I don’t feel any obligation to be here to give it back to them, I want to. It’s just me. And that’s how this whole organization works. No one here has to help you. Some of them can just come punch a card and go home. But the bulk of the people that work in this building, we want to see change, we want to see people get better, we want to see the seniors get a hot meal every day.

“It’s about feeding people, making food with love, just putting the vibe into this community the best I can.”

De Angelis’ next goal is to earn his red seal.

“Realistically by the time I’m 50 I could be a red seal chef, and my kids are like, ‘Do it, Dad. We’d like to see you on TV,’” he said.

“I don’t know if I want to be that mainstream. I’m kind of happy being the person that people look at and go, ‘You know what, he did it, maybe I can do it.’

“There’s a half dozen people that I know, that I was addicted with, that are really trying to take strides and really trying to take steps to make themselves in a better place. You know they slip here and there and have relapses but they are learning how to live again.

“And that’s basically what it’s all about. Anybody could lose their way, it doesn’t take much. Finding the right path and putting your feet back on and just doing the right thing makes life different.”

‘You Can’t Put A Price Tag On A Life’

Last year, the Gateway of Hope served 50,000 meals to people in need, up from 43,000 the year before.

There were 800 to 1,000 people who used the emergency shelter, including 200 unique first-time visitors. Of those, more than 100 went directly from the emergency shelter into addiction treatment, transition housing or permanent housing.

“The issues of poverty and homelessness are rising, and people are seeing visible homelessness probably more than they ever had before,” said Jim Coggles, executive director of the Gateway of Hope.

“Certainly we aren’t saying we have the total solution, but what we have been very quick to say is that what we do in our continuing care is working.

“Just helping people, one person at a time, to progress and move forward from homelessness in the community into our shelter, into our transition housing program, or connecting them to other programs that may address more immediate needs, like addiction.”

“It is encouraging for staff who met Gary in his initial stage of crisis, and who now share a table with him at a staff meeting. We’ve been fortunate to see that,” said Cameron Eggie, residential services manager at the Gateway of Hope.

“That’s the sole reason why we’re here,” Coggles added.

“If only one person was able to get their life back on track because of us being here, then it’s worth it. You can’t put a price tag on a life that’s been redeemed that way.”