Homeless Man Living in Shed Behind Church Reunites With Sister After 22 Years of Separation

Homeless Man Living in Shed Behind Church Reunites With Sister After 22 Years of Separation
(Courtesy of Bruce Hitchen)
Jenni Julander

It is often the case that when a person becomes homeless, family members are left in the dark, wondering what became of them. For years, next of kin may languish in limbo without seeing or hearing from that lost loved one.

So when Kris Zemlak was reunited with her homeless brother at a church in Surrey, British Columbia, she was overjoyed to have found him, alive, at last.

Zemlak’s brother, Gordon Petrie, had fallen into struggles with addiction; he slowly faded from her life, and one day, he was just gone.

“I started to look for him down on East Hastings [in Vancouver] but I never found him," Zemlak told CBC. "I could have walked by him and I would have never known who he was."
(Courtesy ofBruce Hitchen)
(Courtesy ofBruce Hitchen)

It had been 22 years, and despite building a family and a successful career for herself, Zemlak had always wondered what happened to her brother.

Until one day, a friend sent her a text message with a link to an article.

Zemlak was astounded; the article featured her brother’s connection with the Ukrainian Holy Cross Catholic Church in Surrey.

She had found him at last.

Without wasting any time, Zemlak made the trip from Prince George to Surrey, where she had a loving reunion with Petrie.

She discovered he’d been living as a squatter in a shed behind a church on 108 Avenue. However, he’d recently been told that the shed was a fire hazard, and he would have to move.

(Courtesy ofBruce Hitchen)
(Courtesy ofBruce Hitchen)
(Courtesy ofBruce Hitchen)
(Courtesy ofBruce Hitchen)

"It's hard to explain walking up to someone you haven't seen for that long, and it was really, really difficult to see how he lived," Zemlak said. "I could tell what his lifestyle had done to him."

But Petrie hadn’t been living on church property for free. In March, the parish president, Bruce Hitchen, noticed someone had been sweeping the property and squatting in the shed. He also discovered that Petrie had been chasing thieves away from the church.

Hitchen said, "We started asking, what other kind of solution can we come up with for Gordon?"

They wanted to fix up an old house on the property to help Petrie get back on his feet. But the house was deemed uninhabitable, so they allowed him to continue living in the shed, offering him the position of grounds caretaker as a way to earn his keep.

(Courtesy ofBruce Hitchen)
(Courtesy ofBruce Hitchen)

With the impending removal of the shed, Hitchen was relieved when he visited Petrie one day and found his sister there, talking to him.

"Both of them were almost in tears," Hitchen said. "Gordon was like, ‘Bruce, you won't believe who's here. This is my sister.’"

Petrie said the visit took him completely by surprise.

"I heard, 'Gordon, is that you?'—just like my mother used to say," Petrie said. "It took me a couple seconds to realize what was going on. Then she popped around the corner and I just lit up."

Soon thereafter, an outreach worker set Petrie up with a hotel room that’s being leased for social housing during the pandemic.

(Courtesy ofBruce Hitchen)
(Courtesy ofBruce Hitchen)

Zemlak visited more than once, stocking her brother’s cupboards with groceries and celebrating with him on his 51st birthday.

Petrie was overjoyed to reconnect with his sister.

"I will always be in his corner and I will always be on the other end of the phone," she said. "He's my brother."

Now that the siblings have reconnected, they’re determined not to lose touch again.

Zemlak told the Catholic Register, “Drug addicts are people just like you and me, and each of us needs a purpose to our days, and Gordon found his at the church. He took great pride in showing me all of his meaningful work and the shed that he called his ‘home.’”
This story was last updated in November 2020.
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