CHAMPAIGN — Vern Chounard died a homeless man, but he didn't need a home to touch a lot of hearts.
"This man with no home had more families than most of us with a home," said Melany Jackson, founder of C-U at Home, an organization that placed Mr. Chounard in a home of his own eight months ago only to see him return to street life several months later.
Mr. Chounard, 50, died at Carle Foundation Hospital at 8:41 p.m. Monday. A preliminary autopsy found the cause of his death was a traumatic brain injury consistent with a fall, according to Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup.
Jackson said Mr. Chounard was found unconscious on University Avenue by an off-duty firefighter and never regained consciousness before he died.
C-U at Home, an organization striving to find homes for Champaign-Urbana's most vulnerable homeless people, chose Mr. Chounard as its first person to place in a home, and helped him move into a small, donated rental house last December. The organization also tried to help support him in the transition from street life to home life.
He lasted in the house for about four months, then spent about two weeks in a six-month alcohol rehab program, left that program and then spent most of the last four months on the street, Jackson said.
She didn't give up on him and continued to see him frequently, she said.
She and her organization were preparing to try placing Mr. Chounard in the same house again in three weeks, this time with his "street brother," a longtime close homeless friend.
He didn't want to stay alone, says his sister, Penny Chounard McLaughlin of Rantoul, who says she saw him once when he was in his house and also once this past June.
"He felt so alone in that house," she said.
McLaughlin, who called her brother by his full name, Vernon, said he was a good cook and a good artist. Both she and her son once tried to get him to come and stay with them, she said, but he refused.
"We all loved him very much. It's just that he's always been like that," McLaughlin said.
John Hancock, a Savoy retired postal worker who volunteered to help Mr. Chounard adjust to his new life in a house, spent a lot of time with him during his months in the house.
But after Mr. Chounard returned to the streets and lost his phone, staying in touch with him became more difficult and he didn't see him a lot, Hancock said.
He last caught sight of Mr. Chounard on the streets and very intoxicated several Fridays ago, Hancock said, but he didn't try to speak to him.
"The few times I got to see him sober were just wonderful," Hancock says. "There were a few times we had a Bible study at his house on a Sunday and he fixed us food, and he was just a nice person to be around, and then the next day, he'd be off doing what he did."
In his contacts with the man, Hancock said, he began to realize that not only was he beginning to lose hope for Mr. Chounard but Mr. Chounard had lost hope for himself.
Now, Hancock says, he knows Mr. Chounard is in a better place.
"I'm kind of happy he doesn't have the trials and tribulations of his life anymore. He would get beat up all the time. He would drink himself crazy. He doesn't have to deal with that anymore," Hancock said. "I'm just really happy for him. I have a strong belief that there is a God, that there is a heaven, and that's where he is right now, and it's way beyond what we can imagine what it's like to be there."
Jackson says Mr. Chounard called her "sweetheart" when he saw her and joked about wanting to marry her, and she remembers how happy he was when he first walked through the door of his house.
It was Mr. Chounard that confirmed her feelings that she was doing the work she should be doing, Jackson says.
Her organization now has three formerly homeless people living in houses, and is continuing with plans to house Mr. Chounard's friend.
Among Mr. Chounard's many "families" were his own blood relatives, volunteers at C-U at Home, the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen and people he knew through his church and Alcoholics Anonymous, she said.
"I just think of all the groups of people that he touched," she says.
Mr. Chounard was a regular for lunch served by Daily Bread Soup Kitchen volunteers at new Covenant Fellowship in downtown Champaign, and many days he'd just eat quietly, Daily Bread volunteer Deepa Madhubalan said.
If he was having a rough day, she said, he'd sometimes get into some colorful discussions and head out to the lobby.
She and another Daily Bread volunteer went to see him at the hospital before he died, and she takes some comfort in knowing that someone got him to the hospital and he didn't die on the street, she says.
He and his close friend looked after one another like brothers, Madhubalan said. One time, she recalls, they had their sleeping bags stolen, and she was able to find another one, and each of them tried to get the other to take it.
"The thing I remember about him the most," she said, "I'd ask him how are you doing and he'd say, 'I'm still alive.'"
A memorial service for Mr. Chounard will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at New Covenant Fellowship, 124 W. White St., C.