Tag Archives: Homeless

Chat With Rat Boy

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Walking up Bay Street from King, I saw two guys sitting on the sidewalk. It was rush hour and people were pouring from the buildings to make their dash down to Union Station. At first, I didn’t think anything of it: two more kids begging on the streets. But as I passed, I did a double-take. A rat had climbed onto the one kid’s shoulder. I stopped and knelt beside him: “Is that what I think it is?”

He smiled and confirmed that it was a rat. But he was quick to add that rats make good pets. They’re intelligent and loyal. Easy to care for. They’ll eat anything humans eat. Except potatoes. Don’t feed them potatoes. There’s something in the skins that’s poisonous to rats. The only downside to rats is that they eat a lot, almost as much as dogs. As he spoke, I had visions of Willard in my head.

He bought his rat at PJ’s Pet Store. He boarded all the way up Yonge Street to the store north of Lawrence. He’s had his rat for more than a year now. Before that, he had another rat that he bought at the PJ’s in Barrie, but somebody stole it.

“Somebody stole your rat?”

“Yeah. I think because it was black and white. So I bought a brown rat instead. Nobody wants a brown rat. They look dirty.”

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Homeless On Bloor

I’m working on a photobook tentatively titled The Disposable City. It’s a vehicle for exploring urban concerns like ephemera, waste (garbage, demolitions, pollution), and the commodification of everything, including people. Every now and then, I do another spread, then let it sit for a time to see how I feel about it. A while back, I did one on a homeless woman who camped out for a few weeks in a doorway across from me. It seems like a reasonable piece to post on Good Friday. I’ve included the text and a few images below, but for the full impact, you can download the two spreads in pdf format.

From The Disposable City:

I live high up in a condominium on the north side of Bloor Street. Across from me on the south side, one by one, the retailers are leaving their shops as a new owner—a developer—prepares to demolish the existing structures and build a 49-story tower in their place. A homeless woman has started camping out in a doorway. The sight of her greets me in the morning as I eat my breakfast, and again at night as I get ready for bed. Each day, out of curiosity, I lean out my window and train a long lens on her. I want to know if people interact with her as they pass on the sidewalk.

What I have learned is that most people barely acknowledge her existence much less interact with her. On the preceding page are 25 shots of the same scene. In all but one, the people passing don’t appear to see her. A small child, maybe seven years old, is the only person who turns her head and looks directly at the woman. Later, another child waves from his stroller.

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It would be easy to sentimentalize the scene, maybe read something Biblical into it—you must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven. That sort of thing. I dismiss my observations as coincidental. Like so much of photography, it’s a “framing” issue: I’ve watched for only a short time and this has allowed me to be selective in the sliver of time I choose to capture the interactions of pedestrians and a homeless woman. Those interactions just happen to play out in a way that evokes a Biblical aphorism. If I watch for long enough, my sample size will more accurately characterize the interactions. They will become more statistically representative and less Biblical.

The next morning at breakfast, I look out my window and note that a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses have set themselves up within spitting distance of the homeless woman. The scene suggests to me a story about a certain man who lay injured in the street and the pharisees who passed him and did nothing. So much for being statistically representative!

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Over the days and weeks that follow, I watch the homeless woman from my perch. I’m disinclined to suppose that my observations become statistically representative of anything. But they do become more complicated:

A man approaches from the east. He sees the homeless woman. He stops in front of her. He leans in and speaks to her. He pulls a five dollar bill from his pocket and offers it to the woman. They exchange words and then the man walks away. I’m a long way off and can’t infer much from their exchange; I assume the man asked the woman how she was, she answered, and he (taking pity on her) gave her a five dollar bill.

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It isn’t until I examine the exchange on my computer monitor that I realize something different has happened. The man palmed the bill as he walked away. The homeless woman refused the offer of charity.

What a different impression of the parable we would have if the injured man lying in the street had told the Samaritan to go fuck himself.

Then again, that story may have no relevance to the scene on the street far below me. After all, the story was first addressed to a lawyer and so was told in terms he could understand. It was reasonable. Logical. And it was told in answer to a question about the definition of a word (neighbour) and not, as we usually suppose, to encourage acts of charity.

If we want to learn about charity, the stories we hear are anything but reasonable. Emphatically illogical. A woman wants to douse her master’s feet with a valuable perfume. Judas, the greatest villain of the Western canon, makes the reasonable suggestion that they sell the perfume and give the proceeds to the poor. I think it’s important to remember that it is Judas who endorses charity. Maybe it’s his unassailable logic that makes him so villainous.

In the movie, The Unforgiven, William Munny points the muzzle of his rifle. Cowering in terror, Little Bill looks up and says: “I don’t deserve this.” Munny answers: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” He pulls the trigger. If he weren’t a murderer of women and children, Munny could be a religious man explaining the dark underside of a theology of grace. It’s deliciously unreasonable. And terrifying in it’s consequences.

If I am to be gracious, then I must be unreasonable. I find myself asking: what is the unreasonable way to view myself in relation to this woman? What is the unreasonable thing to expect me to do (or not to do) in answer to her presence?

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Eveready Freddy

Freddy was sitting on a bench in Allen Gardens tuning his guitar. I went up to him and asked if I could take some photos of him doing his thing. A couple hours later, after (among other things) a trip to a Timmies where I bought him a coffee, we parted company on Carlton Street.

As soon as Freddy saw the camera, he was talking publicity photos for things like posters because he’s putting together a band and he needs to work at promoting himself. He shot to his feet, grabbed his sweatshirt and jacket, and ran off to see about backgrounds for the shot. The bench where I found him was on the south side of the St. Andrew Evangelical Lutheran Church. It’s a nice stone church; maybe the wall would be a good background. But he decided no and turned to one of the glass conservatories on the other side of the walkway. Maybe that would work. But where would he sit? He ran past a row of benches but they were all covered in graffiti. I had trouble keeping up with him. Finally, he settled for a stone post by the entrance to the greenhouses. He hoisted himself onto the post and set to work tuning his guitar. I’d play a note from the keyboard app on my iPhone, he’d tune for a few seconds, then stop to tell me a bit about himself.

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Freddy is from Owen Sound. One of his ex-wives lives there with his daughter and a man (who made her pay for half of her ring). He has a dog which is living in Markdale. It’s a show dog and he’d like me to take photos of it someday. He’s just come into the city from Oshawa. Somebody robbed him at knife point last night while he was still in Oshawa. Or maybe it was the night before last. He can’t remember. He needs to get back to Union Station sometime to pick up his lunch. He left it with a guy he trusts so, even if the guy isn’t there, he’ll have left it with someone else reliable. But if he loses his lunch (so to speak), so what? He’s only out a jar of olives and another jar of pickles and some other stuff. No big deal.

The reason he’s in Toronto is to find his son who’s MIA – completely dropped off the radar. The boy was born in 1997. His mom—Freddy’s previous ex-wife—just up and left with the boy. Sent him a Dear John letter and that was that. He has a paralegal working for him to help find his boy. Says he hasn’t got much hope of getting access what with Ontario’s laws and all. But he’s heard that maybe she’s in Alberta and that would be a lot easier for him legal-wise. Thing is: he can’t do that from here; he has to get out to Alberta before he can do whatever.

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I ask about his music. He says it’s all his own material. As for influences, he names some people I’ve never heard of. But also the Eagles, Bob Dylan, and Ronny Hawkins, Jr. I mention Gordon Lightfoot. Yeah, he likes Lightfoot, but the harmonies in his music are a bit more tricky, not your straight 1-4-5 stuff. So you’re more of a Stompin’ Tom man, then? He laughs, then he starts singing Bud the Spud.

I have to admit, he has a pretty good singing voice. He says it’s a bit rough. He’s got something in his throat and it probably wouldn’t hurt to have, say, some tea with honey. I take the cue. I’ve got enough shots by now, so we head over to the Timmies across the road from the church. He tells me his stage name is Eveready Freddy, like the bunny, keeps going on and on. I check when I get home: it’s Energizer that has the bunny. Still, the whole bunny thing seems apt. Keeps going on and on.

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He says the biggest problem is managing his bandmates. They’re off doing their own things. Or when they do get together, they want to take their share of the door and snort it up their nose or fuck prostitutes. He thinks it’s such a waste. So you guys play bars up in Owen Sound? Down in Toronto? Well … we haven’t actually got any gigs yet. We’re still putting it all together. (I’m thinking: if the door is $0, then there probably isn’t a lot of snorting or fucking going on.)

He asks for a double double, which I pay for, and he promises to buy me one the next time we get together. We sit at the counter by the window. He pulls out a pack of cigarettes which he empties onto the counter. There’s a twenty dollar bill, a one dollar American bill, a couple coins, and a broken cigarette. He leaves his double double to cool and goes outside to bum a light from a kid smoking on the sidewalk.

When he comes back inside, he tells me about his highs and his lows. Some people have told him he should be taking something for it, but he absolutely refuses. If he took chemicals like that, he wouldn’t be him anymore. There was once when he was hospitalized for a drug-induced psychosis. Wasn’t his fault. He smoked PCPs. The guy who gave it to him said it was weed. Now he has a history. Get hospitalized and it never leaves you. It wasn’t his fault, but they check and go “oh he has mental health issues” even though it was really nothing at all, but now he’s fucked.

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Somehow, we get talking about fairs. Freddy has family near Markdale who run fairs. Then again Freddy doesn’t trust carnies. I ask if he’s ever been a carnie himself. He smiles and gives me his patter. He’s pretty good at it. As you’d expect, he spews it out at breakneck speed. Eveready Freddy. I learn other things, too. Freddy holds a finger to his lips and smiles: in secret, he and a couple buddies are building an ultra-light plane. It’s in a barn up north. They’re just waiting on a shipment of special aluminum.

We walk west along Carlton, and at Mutual Street, a woman drops her bicycle on the street and chases after an envelope that’s blown loose from her jacket pocket. In a thick French accent, the woman explains how important the letter is. She says she’s from Montreal. She says … and then … and then … and then … Not even Freddy can get a word in edgewise. The mantle has passed to someone else so I take my leave.

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Police Carding in Toronto

There’s been a lot of talk in Toronto about the practice of “carding” where police stop people on the street and ask for ID. A number of events have converged to make it a hot-button topic: the practice came up for review, we got a new police chief, Mark Saunders (and given his racial profile, there was some hope he might be an ally to those who are typically on the receiving end of the practice), and police treatment of blacks in Ferguson and Baltimore have had a lot of media play north of the border. As illustrated by this piece in the Globe & Mail, the issue is usually framed in terms of race. However, as my lens discovered earlier this week, it affects other vulnerable people too.

Toronto Police Carding Panhandler

I watched this police officer card a couple (presumably homeless) white guys panhandling on the Danforth. Here, the seated man has just produced his ID and is waving his wallet in my direction. The police officer gives him the thumbs up. To be fair, the officer was courteous and well-spoken and seemed genuinely concerned that the man was okay. Even so, it must be intimidating to be approached in this way by a uniformed person. How many people know that compliance is voluntary? Knowing that, how many people are willing to assert their (constitutionally guaranteed) right to refuse?

One of the ironies of this photograph is that I shot it, not with my discreet mirrorless camera, but with my big honking Mark III. The police officer could not have not noticed me taking it. And yet I walked past undisturbed. I wonder why that is …

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Richard

This is Richard. I was climbing the stairs from Ted Rogers Way to Huntley Street and he was sitting on the top step so I stopped and we chatted. The conversation was rambling, driven by a free-association game that Richard seemed to be playing with himself. Commercial vehicles would zoom past on the road below and their signs and logos would set Richard off on some new observation. Despite the fragmented nature of his patter, it took on a strange coherence.

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Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

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Bloor Street and Rosedale Valley Road

Where Bloor Street passes over Rosedale Valley Road, there are two bridges instead of one. There’s one bridge for the road, and another for the subway. I guess, from a Rosedale Valley point of view, it’s a supraway seeing as the trains pass overhead. In warmer weather, the footings are obscured by trees and foliage, and all the graffiti on the concrete that rises up either side of the valley is hidden from view. The trees provides good cover for the many homeless people who live underneath the bridges. In November, I posted a view from above which shows the subway bridge spanning the valley.

In the winter, the bridges lose their cover. It’s easier to see the graffiti, and it’s safer and more accessible. But even in winter, people live under the bridges. I was shooting in -16˚C and there were a couple homeless men lying in sleeping bags.

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Under Bloor Street facing south.

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Street Photography in Victoria

This is the last installment of a 10-part series of posts featuring photos from Victoria. I began with touristy photos, and end here as far from touristy as you can get — with street photos. Mostly of homeless people. There are a lot of homeless people in Victoria, and a lot of people with addiction problems.

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Christmas Lights

Merry Christmas! Some lights to fill you with cheer!

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Oops! I don’t know how this first photo got into the mix. Let’s move on to something more sanitized, shall we?

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At Home With The Homeless

A couple years ago, my wife and I sold our house in the suburbs and rented a condo downtown. It was an experiment. We wanted to test a different lifestyle. More evenings out. More amenities. More walking. Less cars. Less big box stores. Less cocooning. There were potential downsides too. More noise. More alienation. More traffic. Less space. Less solitude. Less grass. It’s been a great adventure and we’ve decided to stay downtown. For us, the up sides outweigh the down.

However, the adventure didn’t begin auspiciously. On our first evening after moving in to our rental unit, we went for a walk and came upon an ambulance and police car. They were removing a body from a parkette. The police were talking to a homeless man. We had the impression that this wasn’t a case of foul play. They weren’t questioning the man. They were talking to him as if he had been a friend of the deceased.  It was a hot hot summer night. Maybe the heat had been too much for the person who died.

Homeless On Concrete

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Lloyd Mangal, Poet

When I see someone panhandling, or simply sitting there, obviously homeless, my usual response is no response at all. I stare straight ahead and direct all my energy to reaching a point further along the sidewalk. I pretend there is no hand outstretched, no voice asking if I can spare some change. On the odd occasion that I do acknowledge a panhandler’s existence, it’s as a member of a category. The Homeless. Capital letters. The category is a kind of evasion.

When I see someone panhandling, or simply sitting there, obviously homeless, and I have a camera in my hand, my usual response is something like: “Look at the photographic opportunity” or “Isn’t this visually interesting” or (if I’m struck by a sudden liberal sentiment) “Here’s a chance for me to document homelessness in the city.” In photographic terms, I commit the same kind of evasion as when I consign people to a category. I look, but I don’t see. Like the eye, the camera looks; it’s the heart that sees.

Here is a photograph of Lloyd Mangal. Lloyd is a poet. If I were to look at him as a member of a category, I might say he’s one of The Homeless. But I’ve learned to think of him as a poet.

Lloyd Mangal

I’m a relative newcomer to a small spiritual community. It doesn’t hold property, and is committed to social activism & general shit-disturbing. It leases space in Trinity-St. Paul United Church on Bloor west of Spadina. A lot of people drifted in and out of the building. When I first saw Lloyd, I assumed he was one of those people who drift in and out. Maybe he showed up for the food. I expected him to disappear when he’d had his fill. These are the sort of conclusions I draw when I look but don’t see. It turns out Lloyd has a long-standing relationship with the community.

The next time I saw Lloyd, he was carrying a plastic bag. It was full of chapbooks. He’s written a poetry chapbook, Urban Emanations, and he sells it for $5, though sometimes people will give him more. To date, he’s sold more than 4,000 copies. Joe Fiorito has written about Lloyd (and his poetry) for the Toronto Star. As Mr. Fiorito points out, two copies gets Lloyd a bed for the night at the Maxwell Meighan Salvation Army Shelter. Lloyd has also used some of the money to pay for dental work and to buy fresh produce. One of his complaints about food banks is that you can’t get fresh produce there. I guess you could say that, for Lloyd, there is a clear connection between poetry and good health. There’s also a clear connection between poetry and dignity, not just because it earns Lloyd a little extra cash, but because it becomes a way for people to see him. He is a person who thinks and feels, who has depth and a spiritual life.

Excerpts from Urban Emanations:

Your flower garden delights my eye
Soothes and eases my troubled mind
More than consolatory it charms and buoys me up
Wispy essences that counterpoint
The lingering effluence of carbon monoxide
A stark contrast to the recalcitrant cement
Pervasive in the city’s centre
It becomes my secret haven
Unique amid standard structures
Cement blocks quadrangles of glass and street
That dwarf the human spirit

(from Your Flower Garden (for Inge))

You took your stand, your refusal to conform.
Many winter storms and summer suns
Have grizzled your features and your skin
Is now burnished as leather
Your undaunted spirit forges oneness.

(from For Gil (The Original Panhandler))

I am not obliged to compress every moment into an achievement
Or mesmerize the neighbourhood with spectacular feats
Times are dull, times are enhanced and momentous
It’s a pleasure to prepare a meal
Rather than have one served up
A long walk even in adverse conditions
Beats enrolment at the gym or aerobic classes
When I am involved in an activity
I infuse it with the stamp of my personality
These hands are a precious utility, an endowment
Useful to fashion my world, my life.

(from Primary)

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