George packed up his few possessions and got a lift to his own apartment – two decades of life on the street fading further in the rear-view mirror. Homeless since he was 14, George has seen his life repaired by the power of art and the dedication of strangers.
“I’ve tried to do this 15 times, and all the times it was by myself because … I learned very early on the street that asking for help makes you look weak, and looking weak gets you beat up. This is the first time things have actually succeeded and it’s because I’ve had help.”
With the help of a group in Victoria calling themselves the Power of 10, he has learned to cook, drive and has passed Grade 10. “I know it sounds cliché, but I want to be a better man than what I am already,” he says.
It all started with a play.
Michael Shamata moved from Toronto to Victoria in 2007 to be artistic director of the Belfry Theatre, housed in a former Baptist church dating back to 1887. Alarmed by the number of homeless people he saw on the streets, he sought an opportunity to address the issue on the stage of the Belfry, which was once a homeless shelter. He eventually commissioned Saskatoon-based playwright Joel Bernbaum, whose focus is verbatim theatre – a sort of documentary theatre, where the script is made up of words actually said by the interviewees.
Mr. Bernbaum set out to talk to as many Victorians about homelessness as he could. Over the course of more than two years, he conducted more than 500 interviews, translating to thousands of pages of transcript. He got to know some of the people living on the street during breakfast ride-alongs with an outreach worker, where they distributed coffee and doughnuts.
He wanted to talk to the housed too, and met many by knocking on random doors in different neighbourhoods.
He also met a man known in the play as Kevin – he didn’t want to be identified. Over coffee, Kevin told Mr. Bernbaum a story he had heard at church: Thousands of starfish wash up on a beach. A child tries to rescue them, throwing them into the water, one by one. A man approaches the boy and tells him his efforts won’t make any difference. “Well, it made a difference for that one,” the child responds.
Kevin was also thinking about Judaism’s concept of the minyan, where a quorum of 10 is required for public prayer. How difficult would it be, Kevin asked Mr. Bernbaum, to get 10 people together to help one homeless person?
Warming to his own idea, Kevin said: “Call me when you have the other eight.”
A life to be proud of
Mr. Bernbaum also interviewed George – who asked that his real name not be used – then panhandling with his beloved Rottweiler cross.
“She’s a major reason why I felt like I could be better than the street,” he says in an interview, reaching over to pet her, decked out in doggie rain gear on a dreary Victoria afternoon. “I wanted to give her a better life.”
George was born in 1977. Diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, he says he was put on Ritalin at age six. He was bullied at school. “I was ostracized, I was always made fun of, I was always beat up, picked on, thrown around. Girls didn’t like me, laughed at me. It was a horrid childhood.”
His mother, raising him on her own, did the best she could, but things did not go well. He was sentenced to open custody in the youth justice system (possession of dangerous weapons – a butcher knife to ward off a schoolyard bully, he says). His mother wound up in what is now called the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. After a few months in youth jail, George was placed in a group home. By 14, he was out on the street in downtown Toronto.