Death of Edmonton homeless man hits family, friends hard

Homeless man found dead in Edmonton back alley near Whyte Avenue fondly remembered, but leaves some asking why he wasn't in a shelter.

Richard Jordahl's death raises questions about lack of overnight shelters on the south side

An undated photo of Richard Jordahl posted to Facebook by Rob Mann (Rob Mann)

Richard Jordahl's life came to a sad end earlier this month.

His body was found on a stack of pallets in a back alley off Whyte Avenue, an area he stuck to despite a lack of services for homeless people.

He had spent the night outside and died alone.

But despite his homelessness and alcoholism, Jordahl was loved by the family he left behind in Castor, Alta., and by the friends he found along the avenue in Edmonton.

Jordahl's sister Cheryl Hewitt told CBC News that, according to the medical examiner, the 51-year-old did not die from exposure.

"It was his heart," she said. "He had heart disease."

Mark McGowan, a musician who busks on Whyte Avenue, met Jordahl about 13 years ago and got to know him quite well.

"Pretty much every single day he's there on the Ave, going up and down the Avenue," said McGowan. "While we're busking he'll walk by and give you a fist bump and he'll do a little jig to your music for a minute."

Kind-hearted fellow

McGowan, still coming to grips with Jordahl's death, switches tense as he remembers Jordahl is gone.

"Most often he'd throw me a dollar and I'd always be like, 'No man. Ricky I don't need your dollar.' I could tell he needs it but he wants to give even though he has so little," said McGowan.

McGowan describes Jordahl as a kind-hearted fellow who was down on his luck but always tried to stay positive.

He posted a note on Facebook about Jordahl shortly after he learned of his death.

"Rest in Peace Ricky! Whyte Ave has always had a certain charm with you around. [Your] laughing and dancing along to my busking has been a highlight of many evenings on the Ave. [Your] spirit will remain on these streets!"

The reaction to the post was an indication of how well known and liked Jordahl was, McGowan said.

'Didn't like confrontation'

"It garnered a lot of attention and then subsequently I saw lots of other posts right after that popping up (saying), 'Rest in peace Ricky,' etc," McGowan said.

Some of those people want to know why Jordahl didn't stay north of the river where there are shelters and more services.

McGowan believes Jordahl was scared.

"The big reason was the gangs and also the turf war between some of the homeless downtown," McGowan said. "I think he didn't want to get picked on or forced into buying drugs. He didn't like confrontation like that."

There are no overnight shelters on the south side. McGowan thinks that should change.

"I think that would be a great idea, even if it's a four or five-hour thing like, 11 until 5 in the morning. Anything would help," said McGowan. "A few hours out of the freezing temperatures at nighttime right, because nighttime is when bad things tend to happen."

'Not sure why he left'

Back in Castor, Jordahl's family also have questions, but they are more to do with their son and brother who left for the big city some 20 years ago.

"I'm not sure why he left," Hewitt said. "He left in his thirties."

Hewitt said her brother had a drinking problem, but her memories of him match those of his Whyte Avenue friends.

"I knew all along he was a good guy. It was just that I don't know why he left," Hewitt said.

Hewitt finds comfort in knowing he had an impact on people along Whyte Avenue.

"He found respect among those people," said Hewitt. "I'm not surprised because he was well loved here."

A proud man

Her voice cracks as she talks about her initial thoughts upon hearing of her brother's passing, "that I hoped he didn't freeze to death."

She's not sure a south-side shelter would have made a difference in her brother's life, however.

"He was a proud man and he would never want to get help," said Hewitt. "I communicated with him in October and I told him, 'You get on social services.' I said, 'They'll help you,' but he's just too much of a proud man."

That independent attitude among the homeless isn't uncommon, said Aidan Inglis, manager of Boyle Street 24/7 Outreach and Support Services.

"The reality is a lot of folks who do stay out, choose to stay out," said Inglis. "They feel safer staying out of downtown and shelters in general."

There is 24-hour mobile emergency support for anyone on the south side who needs it. But Inglis feels more could be done.

Emergency shelter would help

"I think an emergency shelter would definitely help alleviate situations where it does get really cold or maybe folks — their health isn't great and they need somewhere to stay overnight," said Inglis.

Jordahl's family in Castor has invited Edmontonians who knew Jordahl to a funeral service in Castor on Friday. They're asking people to give on his behalf.

"Bring in warm blankets and warm clothing and donations in Ricky's name to the Hope Mission," said Hewitt. "They sure need it, especially in this kind of weather."

For others wanting to donate, CBC is currently holding a clothing drive for the homeless.

Donations of new hats, gloves and socks will be accepted until Dec. 13. 

CBC is located at Edmonton City Centre Mall, 100th Street and 102nd Avenue.