By Bob Rose (with historian Megan Davies)
Experience is the father of memories. Memory is mother of stories. Since you have decided to cross over the threshold and through this window we are meeting. This feels a bit like so many other encounters I have had.
When you stand on the street long enough you will meet all kinds of people. I have.
And besides, I have 5 stories to share with you. I cannot say much about why they are here. But I will share a little about how they have arrived. Much like you, they floated through my window. And they stuck around for so long I had to write them down.
I still wonder what they are about. They may be about crossing boundaries, about love, loss and running out of time in the rush towards some kind of raw discovery. One thing is certain. They are not my stories. They belong to the people who inhabit them and the people who are standing and waiting on your street corner.
So what happens next? Well first I am going to tell you a little about the world these stories come from. Then you will have to take it from there. Oh and one more thing…. An open window is the antidote to a prison.
Bob Rose has been a staff person at PARC since its earliest days, at the heart of history of PARC – the programs, the celebrations, the planning, and the political struggles.
His office is filled with objects and artifacts. They convey a visual and emotional message about PARC’s long illustrious history: photographs of PARC members; bricks salvaged from an old boarding home, newspaper clippings; milestone event posters created by a PARC artist called Tyde; railway lanterns collected by an old prospector named Walter; the protest collage work of John Blank. In the corner there is a pile of rocks and the shard of a meteorite, a hard hat dating back to the first of many PARC renovations, and a canoe paddle.
In the spring of 2009 I made a sudden decision to apply for a Metcalf Renewal Grant to support a 6-month sabbatical leave for the purpose of writing PARC stories. My submission process was as whimsical as my proposal. I left work on a Friday to spend the weekend fixing my canoe and writing my proposal.
One year later I arrived in an Algonquin Park log cabin to begin writing. I had told many stories over the years and I had long list of story ideas and titles to work with. But the cabin seemed dreamlike. And I soon realized that choosing the stories to be written would demand an emotional connection to the material. So I lay under the pines and I began to remember. Fragments. Moment. Feelings. Questions. I wrote them down and they became my story-writing compass.
In the late 1970’s I experienced a serious depressive episode. It took me to a desperate place I had never been before. I went on a trip to resolve it, embarking on 8-week canoe journey through the woods north of Lake Superior.
When I returned to Toronto I changed my career direction and began working at the Clarke Institute as a member of the nursing team on the Forensic Services Unit. A few years later I had the opportunity to participate in the first case management program in Ontario and take training in psychiatric rehabilitation. I went to work at the new Archway Clinic, one of the first community mental health satellite agencies of Queen Street Mental Health Centre (now CAMH) and located in Parkdale. Those combined experiences changed me and led to my immersion in a community work career.
As in my beginning journey through the wilderness, my professional life soon transformed into an exploration of the dislocation found in a mental health crisis, poverty, and homelessness, and a continued search for the paths and the alternatives needed to make a safe journey home.
I had moved into community mental health in Toronto on the cusp of deinstitutionalization, as Queen Street Mental Health Centre shed residential care beds and Lakeshore Hospital in Mimico closed its doors. What I found were desperate living situations, poverty and the lack of recovery resources confronting many psychiatric survivor outpatients. It was inevitable I join forces with other survivor advocates. We pressed for resources: a home, a friend, a job.
Shortly after arriving in Parkdale I started working with the residents of a deteriorated boarding home called Channon Court. My intent was to try and improve the living conditions there through organizing and advocacy, partly because I was actively supporting a number of its very disabled residents. This goal soon became entwined with investigative journalism in The Globe and Mail, ongoing collaboration with a PARC survivor staff, and controversial communications emerging from the Ministry of Health. Suddenly, the tragic death of PARC member and Channon Court tenant John Dimun transformed that work by placing it the sphere of a coroner’s inquest (Dimun Inquest 1986) and the opportunity to be an inquest witness. The jury made multiple recommendations: one transformed the Channon Court boarding home into renovated House Link Supportive Housing, another created a new agency (Habitat Services) with a mandate to monitor, fund and improve the standards of the congregate housing forced upon so many mental health survivors.
The experience gathered from mixing front line support work with public advocacy changed my career direction again and I began working at PARC.
During the 1960s and 1970s approximately 75% of Ontario’s psychiatric hospital beds were eliminated, and thousands of patients discharged. In Toronto, it is estimated that by the early 1980s 1,200 former mental health patients were living in the community of Parkdale. There was little social support, decent housing, or basic legal protection for this group of vulnerable people. Their often-obvious poverty, marginal living situations, and psychiatric diagnoses bred suspicion and distrust among Parkdale’s middle-class.
When PARC was founded in 1980, it was envisioned as a haven, a sanctuary from the outside world for those who needed it most. The drop-in was the first thing to be set in place, a “living room” offering members food, company and something to do. A writing group began to meet, summer wilderness programs were developed, and a culture of music, art and community celebration took root in an old Parkdale bowling alley. Today, the PARC umbrella of personal supports and resources includes: outreach and case management, primary health care, dental care, financial support services, harm reduction programming, access to alternative coping supports and supportive housing. But this was all in the unimagined future when Bob arrived.
A small drop-in, with very few resources, had supported my advocacy activity at Channon Court. Now, it became my new employer. PARC was one of the first community drop-ins in the City of Toronto, deep in courage but short on options for a sustainable future. I began working there because it provided the opportunity to have a different type of conversation; a dialogue about safety, personal story, creating personal and collective welcoming strategies, using community development to frame individual support work. It was also a place voicing defiant opposition to the damage created by deficit assessments, diagnostic labeling and the human rights discrimination people caught up in the mental health system were experiencing.
PARC developed in ways similar to New York City’s Fountain House. We had an independent attitude; a “do it ourselves / do it together” philosophy that grounded our work activities. I am very proud of those days of struggle and how our small staff group (5 people) pushed back against isolation and a lack of resources to convert these into creative assets. We invented programs based on the needs expressed by members, taking steps to translate ideas into an experiential process. It was not surprising that the main theme of the program was to encourage members to express themselves; to recover their voice. This was one way to respond to the pain of isolation and loneliness of personal exit.
In its heart the PARC drop-in became a very flexible interior public space, replacing the loss of inflexible, exterior public space. It was busy. It was chaotic. But it was also safer than the world outside PARC’s doors. Creating positive space requires patience and compassion. But given the willingness and the time to create that kind of space we watched as people began to rediscover themselves and each other within it. So they kept coming back – day after day.
Relationships, trust and belonging are often scarce in damaged lives. Found here at PARC it became a source of personal and community strength, pride and purpose. PARC recognized (if not always consciously) the importance of this in the processing of the grief and loss so prevalent in members’ lives. The challenge of experiencing, understanding, releasing and replacing loss and disappointment with the seeds of hope was so basic to community development -and individual change- that I used to dream of moving the hyphen in our name; only because I wanted convey the discoveries occurring at The Parkdale Activity Re-creation Centre.
Bob Rose was employed at Archway for three-plus years, part of an innovative case management program where staff met their clients, not in the office, but on the neighbourhood streets and boarding houses of Parkdale, trying to foster positive life changes by placing themselves within the daily circumstances of the people they were trying to help. But Archway, though progressive in practice, was still a psychiatric outpost of the old guard Queen Street Mental Hospital. Making the transition from mental health caseworker to PARC employee was a further step toward erasing the us/them distinction, taking Bob toward a new politic of community mental health work.
PARC is a place filled with just that type of story and memory. Sometimes a single moment can be unforgettable. I remember working a Saturday night drop-in in 1989. We were closing up. I was standing at the door to say good night to each member as they left. For one woman, Patty, it would be her last night. She left us for a stairwell in a local building and passed away on that lonely staircase over the night. She was sick but we had not noticed. She was homeless but no one knew.
The next day when I heard of her death I took a vow that all of my efforts to engage in community development had to change. First, community development had to find a way to support people individually as well as collectively. And further, it had to create room for speaking out in ways that would deliver people’s stories and experiences into the hands of the people who needed to hear them. To do this was a way of honoring those who became lost and found a way to come back as well as those who perished on their journey. More than this, making a continued fight for change a fundamental part of the work of community building was the only way to ensure that the process remained honorable under great duress. This is a reversible equation: Development is accomplished through struggle. Struggle is accomplished through development.
Good development work means having the ability to step back, step forward and step sideways when things go wrong or become deadlocked. It requires observation and preparation- to see the unexpected and remain open to the mystery of momentum rising.
Nothing like PARC can exist in isolation. While some aspects of its – and my – evolution have been nourished by trial and error followed by reflection, others have been naturally inspired by the growth of partnerships over the years. This mirrors our responsibility (and need) to engage with others in sharing PARC concerns and values. When successful, this leads to an improvement or expansion of our services / supports. At other times it provokes us to examine our role in the world, and to examine how PARC can sustain anti-oppression work in an era of diminishing human rights.
Over the years there have been many struggles and campaigns to boot. Like the best life can offer, they may have appeared as a moment of inspiration, a simple idea, a strange convergence or connection……..all scattered across the ground of experience informed by the commitment to working hard with heart and mind.
It is curious how much work can be dedicated to exploring ways to make change and search for home- and more curious how these twin directions mysteriously evolve into stories that remember where we have come from and imagine where we are going.
So that’s it. This snapshot of my journey at PARC, and PARC’s own passage through time, must pause.
Now: To the stories…..