Because of Edmond: A Place of Safety and Hope Unit
- Acknowledge that people living with mental health difficulties deserve dignified access to the fundamental necessities of life, i.e. housing, food
- Understand the critical connections between mental wellbeing and safe, supportive, affordable housing
- Recognize that crisis interventions with people in emotional distress require empathy, adherence to basic human rights principles, and a strategic understanding of social exclusion
The components that anchor this unit are the testimonies of two staff at Toronto’s PARC Drop-In who tell the difficult story of how member Edmond Yu became homeless and was killed, a victim of an ill-considered police intervention. Then, they trace how the PARC community established Edmond Place, in the hope of providing homes – not just housing – for people like Edmond. Here is PARC staff Bob Rose speaking about Edmond’s homelessness:
Evaluating the Components
- Components: Edmond – Self-Guided Learning – 45 minutes
- Component Evaluation: Edmond – Values Line – 30 minutes
- Component Evaluation: Edmond – Ideas for Change – 45 minutes
The history of Edmond Yu’s life and unnecessary death is a tragedy, a tale of inadequate social supports and poor policing that took place in Toronto in the 1990s, but has been recast and replayed in other Canadian cities. Yu’s heartbreaking story had an encouraging postscript when his community of PARC (Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre) responded to the death of one of their own by creating supportive housing for marginalized people, especially those with psychiatric diagnoses. It is the nexus of these two tales – one heartbreaking and one hopeful – that make the story of Yu’s life, death, and legacy such a powerful teaching tool.
In 1984, Edmond Yu, a bright and successful student from Hong Kong, began his studies at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine. After achieving top grades in his first year, his mental health deteriorated. Diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia in 1985, Yu spent the next decade struggling with intervals of involuntary hospitalization, stints in rooming houses that did not welcome his “strange” behaviour, and periods of homelessness.
In February 1997 law enforcement officers were called after Edmond assaulted a woman and then boarded a bus. Edmond, holding only a small hammer, was shot and killed by police as he stood on the emptied transit vehicle. Deeply affected by Edmond’s death, the people at PARC saw the tragedy as stemming from funding cuts being made in the charged political climate of Premier Mike Harris’ Ontario. The PARC community mobilized to advocate for social justice, supportive housing, and a better mental health system.
The resulting coroner’s inquest emphasized the role of homelessness in Yu’s tragic death, recommending the creation of safe-houses and other forms of housing for consumer-survivors in Toronto. The 2011 establishment of Edmond Place – a beautiful 29-unit affordable supportive-housing building located next-door to PARC – was a direct response to Edmond’s death and the inquest findings. Considered a model of supportive housing, the new facility has support workers on-site, housekeeping and cooking services, and shared spaces for family get-togethers and community events.
The arch of history links Edmond Place directly to Edmond himself, for this was the rooming house from which the young man had been evicted in the winter of 1996. When PARC’s proposals to purchase and refurbish the building for supportive housing were initially met with resistance from the larger Parkdale community, PARC members went door-to-door in a community-engagement campaign. Member participants in PARC’s Ambassador Program took on the job of educating the community on who PARC members were, what PARC does, and why Edmond Place was so crucial. In the end, the campaign was so successful that not a single person opposed PARC’s proposal.
Components in Context
Like Canadians across the country in similar circumstances, PARC members have always faced enormous barriers to safe shelter and affordable housing. Homelessness is not just about not having a home. It is about spending more than 50% of your income on rent. It is about sleeping on a friend’s couch or in a shelter, for weeks or months at a time. It is about sleeping rough, in the park or wrapped in a blanket on a hot air vent. This description is all about place, but homelessness is also about emotional dislocation, loss of individual property and threats to personal health and safety.
Homelessness was not an invention of the late twentieth-century. Indeed, most Canadian cities have a rich history of life in the vast “hobo jungles” of the Great Depression. But it is certain that over the last decades of the twentieth century the long-established ranks of homeless Canadians (older working-class men) grew and extended to include new populations of women, youth, families, and people who use mental health services. There is evidence that one-third of homeless people live with serious mental health difficulties, but the percentage of chronically homeless people in this category is much higher. While homelessness always means hard life circumstances, it has been found that when compared to the rest of the street population, homeless Canadians with mental health difficulties suffer greater material and emotional hardship, take larger health risks, and are more vulnerable to violence and financial and sexual exploitation.
Useful material on housing and mental health can be found at: The Homeless Hub, a solution-oriented research site.
Some PARC members also hold stories of difficult encounters, often in moments of crisis, with law enforcement officers. The historical shift from residential to community mental health services brought police into much greater contact with mental health populations: as many as 50% of calls received by police services relate to mental health. Moreover, encounters with law enforcement officers comprise the “entry point” into the mental health system for many Canadians experiencing their first mental health crisis.
Research has shown that these encounters are often problematic for both parties. Service users report concerns regarding the public release of damaging personal information contained in police records, involuntary hospitalization, and the (sometimes deadly) use of force. In 2013 and 2015 the story of Edmond Yu was replayed in the heartbreaking deaths of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim, shot eight times and then tasered by police on a Toronto streetcar, and Andrew Loku, killed in the hallway of his CMHA supportive housing apartment complex. Police state that, while sometimes sympathetic toward those in emotional distress, they find mental health symptoms frighteningly dramatic and those exhibiting them often alarmingly unpredictable. Horrified by witness videos and media accounts, many concerned Canadians believe that law enforcement officers and other frontline mental health workers need to open up both their minds and their hearts to people like Loku, Yatim and Yu. In this vision of a sounder way forward, police would receive an education that gives them both the skills necessary for non-violent crisis intervention and a compassionate understanding of what it means to be in mental health crisis.