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Catholic Vancouver Dec. 6, 2018

Savouring a life-changing cup of coffee  

By Agnieszka Ruck

Jim Mandelin (right) was a homeless, abused teenager selling drugs for bikers when he met Keith Ostertag at Catholic Charities Men's Hostel. The encounter was one of a few random acts of kindness that helped Mandelin turn his life around. (Agnieszka Ruck photos)

When Keith Ostertag offered an awkward, homeless teenager a hot cup of brew one night in the 1970s, he couldn’t have known the impact would last for decades.

“We didn’t push for ID, but he looked 19,” said Ostertag, a longtime employee at Catholic Charities Men’s Hostel. “We’re not actually supposed to have people under 19. I took him at face value. You gotta give everybody a chance.”

Since 1959, the hostel has offered a safe, dry place to sleep for homeless or transient men in Vancouver for up to 90 days at a time. When Jim Mandelin walked in one night, he was only 15, but had already survived a lifetime of rejection, pain, and poverty.

He lied about his age, was assigned a mattress on the floor, and lay down, but was afraid to sleep. He approached Ostertag, then working the night shift, and asked for some coffee.

“I knew some deep things were happening to him. I could sense that,” said Ostertag. “He wanted to talk, and we played cards.”

For Mandelin, telling the story now 48 years later, it was more than just a short interaction.

A traumatizing start

Mandelin grew up on a remote family farm near Rocky Mountain House, Alta., born to an abusive, alcoholic 26-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl who had been previously homeless. They moved in together in a trailer home next to a house belonging to his father’s extended family.

When Mandelin was 1 year old, his grandmother insisted he move into the farm house so she could raise him. His father, still living in the trailer home, would beat his mother and lock her up so no one could see the bruises and get help. By the time Mandelin was 3, his mom managed to escape and never came back.

Mandelin slept in the cramped quarters of the family home, next to an aunt who would sexually abuse him while everyone else slept. Another aunt, an uncle, and even his father also violated him. “My uncle beat me, because he said children are born evil and it’s his job to beat the devil out of me.”

There was a lot of hatred in the home; Mandelin still remembers the men of the house and their angry racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant rants. 

“I couldn’t understand who they were hating,” he said. “What I figured out by the time I was 14 was: Maybe I’m a Jew; maybe I’m black; maybe I’m Catholic. That’s why they treat me so bad.”

The only item left behind for Mandelin from his mother was a collie named Lassie. He and his brother became so close to the pet, they nicknamed her “Mom.”

“I would wonder off into the hay fields, where I could lay down where no adults could see me – just the eagles, who would fly around and think I was dead prey or something. Lassie would come and lick the tears off my face,” said Mandelin.

Mandelin and his younger brother would sneak scraps of food from the home out to Lassie. Those positive memories only lasted a short time, until Lassie had puppies and Mandelin’s uncle, pointing a shotgun, forced the boys to drown them. Lassie didn’t play with the boys after that.

“Somebody asked me once: ‘Tell me a happy moment in your childhood.’ It doesn’t exist.”

Becoming homeless

Mandelin did very poorly at school. Raised mostly by his grandmother, he spoke fluently in her native Sami (a First Nations language from Finland) but couldn’t put a sentence together in English. 

His father’s alcoholism drained the family’s finances, so Mandelin depended on the Salvation Army for clothes and became an easy target for bullies as he wore donated shoes and oversized pants.

Classmates would call him names, pull his pants down, and once nearly drowned him, while teachers publicly humiliated him. Their feuds with his family led to them not allowing him to excuse himself from class to use the washroom.

“One day, on a very cold, snowy October day, I was just at the end,” said Mandelin. He was 15 years old, sitting in math class, and dreading the grade on his latest math exam. He knew the result wasn’t good.

The teacher chose to humiliate him that day. He waved the test in the air, saying: “Somebody got 12 per cent on their math test – Mr. Mandelin!” The class burst into laughter, and something inside the boy snapped.

“It hurt so much. I just got up and started walking out of the classroom. He was yelling: ‘Sit down!’ But it was enough. I got out, walked down the hallway. I walked out of the school, onto the #11 Highway, and started walking with my thumb out.”

Jim Mandelin

Mandelin didn’t even stop at home. He hitchhiked right out of town wearing a thin jacket. Three days later, he found himself in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside where a truck driver dropped him off, gave him $5, and wished him luck.

Mandelin ended up selling drugs for biker gangs by day and sleeping on a park bench by night. He couldn’t count the number of times he was approached or molested by pedophiles. Once, he thought he could trust a street preacher who lured him to the church basement with the promise of warm clothes and food. 

Mandelin accepted the clothing, ate some food, and fell asleep that night, only to wake up to the preacher’s inappropriate touch. He pretended he was still asleep.

Early the next morning, Mandelin raided the church office, stole $60 he found in a cash box, and was gone. The money purchased him a few weeks at the Beacon Hotel, a social housing building.

Then the bikers told him about the Catholic Charities Men’s Hostel. Having met a friendly Catholic sometime in his childhood, he decided to give it a try, and checked in.

“It was a big room full of mattresses. They were just a little bit too close together. I lay there, and it was kind of dark, with a little bit of light coming from outside, and I thought: ‘Is that guy moving towards me?’”

Mandelin, fearing more unwanted sexual advances, got up and asked Ostertag for coffee. Instead of sleeping, they played at least 30 rounds of card games that night.

“He wasn’t trying to take advantage of me. I was suspicious for a while, but nothing happened,” said Mandelin. “I felt safe here, you know?”

The Men’s Hostel entrance on Cambie Street.

After that night, Mandelin would return to stay at the Men’s Hostel when he wasn’t with the bikers or in jail for selling drugs, stealing, or trying to cross the U.S. border illegally. 

He dodged children’s services, who wanted to send him back to his abusive family, and for a while made an income pick-pocketing barely conscious drunk men outside a bar and splitting the funds with the bouncer who’d kicked them out.

It took a long time for Mandelin, now 63, to leave the gangs, drugs, and theft behind, and seek counselling for the abuses in his past.

Butterfly effect

Mandelin and Ostertag reconnected recently, quite by chance, at an event on homelessness put on by the Seniors Services Society of B.C. While attending the Burnaby event, Mandelin saw a signboard for Catholic Charities and the name sparked a sense of familiarity. He walked over to the man representing the organization to introduce himself. It turned out to be Ostertag himself.

Nearly 50 years after their first meeting, Mandelin re-entered the men’s hostel for this interview. “It still smells the same,” he said as he sat down.

Mandelin has left crime, drugs, heavy drinking, and gangs behind. He is now an advocate for restorative justice, a youth mentor, and a training and membership coordinator for the Homeless Services Association of B.C.

In 2012 he published a book about his dark past and how he dug himself out of it, titled A Life Worth Dying For: An Act of Kindness. In 2015 he won the Courage to Come Back Award from Coast Mental Health.

“So what does an act of kindness have to do with my wretched life? Well, there’s an act of kindness,” Mandelin says, pointing to Ostertag.

“I’m here because of the kindness of Keith, and a few others. I could count them on one hand.”

Ostertag and Mandelin tour the Men’s Hostel, which since Mandelin stayed there has upgraded its mattresses on the floor to actual beds.

Mandelin adds to the short list a Catholic man in his old neighbourhood who was friendly to him even though his family hated Catholics; the truck driver who gave him $5, cigarettes, and didn’t try to molest him; and his elderly therapist, who helped him cope with so much trauma. He hopes to write another book about the positive impressions they made on his life.

“For years and years I thought about that guy at Catholic Charities,” said Mandelin, who now has seven grandchildren and has just celebrated his 20th wedding anniversary. He recently shared his story in Offenders No More, a university-level psychology textbook on restorative justice for ex-offenders.

“Acts of kindness, you never know how they affect a person years later.”

In his many years of serving at the Men’s Hostel, Ostertag said few stories have come full circle like this one. “Every once in a while, it does happen: people come back and talk about how it’s changed their lives. I love to hear these success stories.”