Homeless 'coffin guy' has vanished

A fixture for years in his self-built contraption under the Gardiner, Hans Scholze has disappeared

Feb 17, 2008 04:30 AM

Staff reporter


Hans Scholze was once a loving, handsome man, intelligent and well-read, who took his daughter for strolls on the boardwalk in the Beach. But he ended up alone, with his mobile box.


If a homeless man falls off the face of the Earth, does anybody care?

One day, a long time ago, Hans Scholze drove home from his job at an asbestos factory and immediately ushered his wife and young daughter out of their Beach home.

Martians, Scholze told his befuddled family, had chosen him as their representative on Earth, and the house was urgently needed for a high-level meeting of extraterrestrials.

That bizarre act some 30 years ago signalled the beginning of Scholze's downward spiral, which would eventually see him move into a mobile plywood box he parked for years under the Gardiner Expressway.

But now he has gone missing entirely.

"I want to find my father," Monika Scholze said in an email to this newspaper. "He's just disappeared and no one seems to know what's become of him."

Concerned for his well-being, Monika and her mother, Ursula Schandor, have recently been scouring his former haunts along Lake Shore Blvd. and in the port lands, but their detective work turned up nary a clue as to his whereabouts.

"One of his sisters was so concerned that she came from Germany to look for him, but went home without finding him either," Schandor told the Star. "It appears he's just vanished."

For years, Scholze parked what he called his "coffin-on-wheels" under the Gardiner Expressway E. near Leslie St. If cops, hobos or drunken teenagers harassed him, he simply pulled his home a few blocks and resettled.

When the Gardiner extension started coming down in 2000, Scholze pulled up stakes and moved to the port lands near Commissioners St., where his homestead became a highly visible testament to the ugly reality of homelessness.

Those who keep tabs on the homeless say there haven't been any confirmed sightings of the man, known on the streets as "Scholzie" or "the coffin guy," for at least two years.

"The word on the street is that Hans may have left the city or the province," said Iain de Jong, who runs the city's Streets to Homes program. Scholze is not among the 1,500 homeless people his organization has found residences for since the program started in 2005.

The Seaton House hostel does not have any record of Scholze ever staying there. No one at All Saints Church Community Centre on Dundas St. E. can recall ever breaking bread with him.

The provincial coroner's office has not toe-tagged anyone named Hans Scholze, and his photo is not among those of the two dozen unidentified dead posted on the Ontario Provincial Police's website.

It's possible he moved to another town, died an indigent, and was given a pauper's funeral by the local municipality.

Cathy Crowe, a nurse who has dedicated her life to helping Toronto's homeless, says more than 550 have died on the streets of Toronto in the past 23 years, but Scholze's name is not among them.

"I am regularly contacted by people trying to find a relative, as they have no central body to turn to," Crowe laments. "There is no official body in Toronto that takes responsibility for documenting, tracking or doing research into homeless deaths."

Monika Scholze says her father "might be walking to Vancouver, as he always said he'd do." But since he's 72, that scenario is unlikely.

The one certainty is that Hans the Hermit, who used to quote Shakespeare, the Bible and Greek mythology, is nowhere to be found.

Interviewed in 1999 for an article profiling his renegade lifestyle, Scholze told this reporter: "Freedom is everything in America. It can't be described. It must be experienced."

His "freedom" came with a heavy price his wife and daughter, his safety and well-being, and all the worldly possessions and comforts valued by society.

Monika Scholze has had very little contact with her father since he crawled into his plywood box more than 20 years ago to begin a life of exile, steadfastly refusing all charity or a warm place to live. "It's not easy telling people your father lives in a box under the Gardiner," she says.

The last time Monika saw her dad, he was living in a field across from Teperman Demolition & Waste on Commissioners St. The company has since closed, and the workers who knew him told her it had been some time since he went in there to use the washroom facilities.

Things weren't always so bizarre.

Monika remembers happy times with the tall, handsome, once-loving man. Intelligent and well-read, he took her for long walks on the boardwalk and on family camping trips to Algonquin Park.

Schandor, too, remembers how Hans swept her off her feet after the two German immigrants met at a Toronto movie theatre in 1958. They shared a common past the poverty of growing up in post-war Germany and a strong desire to make something of their new lives in Canada.

But there was also a dark side.

There was Scholze the compulsive gambler, who once took his daughter, then 7, to the horse races in Fort Erie, and after losing all his money was forced to beg a bus driver for a ride back to Toronto.

And Schandor recalls as if it were yesterday the day her husband came home babbling incoherently that he'd been contacted by extraterrestrials.

"It was a Sunday. He said I had to take Monika to the beach because he needed the house to meet with the Martians. If I stayed, I would suffer the consequences."

His behaviour became increasingly erratic as Scholze began to distance himself from his family. Soon she found herself begging him for money for food or clothes and shoes for their daughter. She remembers him withdrawing into his own world, convinced that everything in the house was bad for him the food, the water and the furnace.

"He wouldn't eat anything I made for him. He said I was trying to poison him. He wanted us to drink water from the ravine because tap water, too, was poison."

Then came the verbal abuse and, finally, the violence. He hit her, she says, a number of times. Police were called on at least one occasion. They finally divorced in 1972.

To this day, she does not know what triggered the personality change, because Scholze would never admit there was anything wrong with him, let alone see a doctor.

"He refused to get help. He thinks we're all nuts and he's the only sane person in the world.

"Sane one minute, crazy the next. With people like that there is nothing you can do. You just have to save your own sanity. I had to cut the ties to save my own life."

Years later, after the death of Schandor's second husband, Otto, Scholze made a dramatic return to her life. She was a widow with little money, and he offered to pay rent. He parked his Gremlin in her driveway on Gledhill Ave. and lived out of his car.

When neighbours complained, police told him it was illegal to live in a car. So he pitched a tent in the backyard and lived there. The neighbours complained again. So he built a shed.

Schandor sold the house and moved to an apartment to get away from Scholze. That's when he made the first of his carts, equipped it with a television and batteries, and began his self-imposed exile.

Thieves soon made off with his belongings, so he built a stripped-down version. A Coleman stove provided heat, and a bicycle he kept tethered to his buggy was his transportation.

Monika no longer clings to the hope that one day her father will return to her life and be normal. She just wants to make sure he's okay, and to be able to report back to his six sisters in Germany that he's alive.

Scholze used to tell anyone who would listen that if he died in his mobile coffin, the city could simply wheel him to a local cemetery and bury him in it.

Monika would like to give him a more dignified send-off.

"If I have the money, I'd like to freeze his body and ship it into outer space," she says in jest. "That's where he'd be happiest ... with his friends, the Martians."

"That's right," Schandor chuckles. "That's where he'd be the happiest."

But first they have to find him.