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.
He fell in with bikers, and became very good, he says, at selling pot – a skill he took with him when, wanting to get away from the increasing demands of the bikers, he took off, hitching rides across the country. He wound up in Victoria and began a new life on the street.
Two years ago, he'd had enough. He told Mr. Bernbaum he wanted out. "Every few years I get wanting what other people have – being normal and loved and having a boss that you can learn from and a life to be proud of, like most people," George says. "Like the stories you read in the newspaper and see in the movies."
Mr. Bernbaum was by then acting as associate artistic director at the Belfry and had some stability and a steady income. Inspired by Kevin's starfish story, he initiated what they began to call the Power of 10. He, Kevin and Mr. Shamata started supporting George immediately while they looked for the seven others. They sent e-mails out to their networks and, by the end of the second month, they had the group together.
"I saw it as an opportunity to do something that I'm always sort of griping about … the homeless situation," says Eryn Yaromy, 27, who works at the Belfry box office.
Each member was to contribute $100 a month and meet with George regularly to help him with some aspect of his life. (There were actually 11 members, as two people, who didn't know each other, teamed up: Iris MacGregor, a retired drama teacher then living out of town, had the money but not the time; Will Weigler, who facilitates socially conscious community theatre projects, had the time but not the money.)
Everyone had an area of specialty. Art teacher Xane St. Phillip helped George fill out endless forms and navigate the bureaucracy in the quest for financial assistance. Christine Leacock, a registered nurse, shepherded him around to medical appointments and assessments. Maureen Murphy-Dyson helped him get his learner's permit, quizzing him over meals at Denny's or Tim Hortons so he wouldn't be learning on an empty stomach.
Ms. Yaromy helped with budgeting. "I'm in an entry-level job … not making a ton of money," she says. "It just goes to show that anybody can be involved in something like this."
Mr. Weigler pushed George over coffee shop sessions to answer questions such as: "Do you have any regrets?" and "Describe an ideal evening."
"It was kind of like brothers who are talking about something," says Mr. Weigler, who also used his Honda CRV to pick up furniture and household items to help George build a new life in a house he was sharing with a friend from the street.
Jeannie MacDonald, a former social worker who is now retired, gave George cooking lessons, beginning with the very basics. "You don't realize what somebody doesn't know. He had not for years had a kitchen or a fridge so it didn't occur to him to put perishables in the fridge. And it took him a little bit to believe me," Ms. MacDonald says.
George asked to learn recipes that would allow him to re-experience the meals he had enjoyed at his grandmother's table, before life on the street. He learned how to steam vegetables, make soup, pork roast. "I can make an apple pie from scratch," he says, beaming at his cooking mentor. "Being successful with making the food … gave me confidence to do the other stuff."
Equally important was the support. George could text members when he felt stressed or sad, go for coffee, talk it out. By putting their money – and time – where their mouth is, the group gave George the security that comes with an unconditional safety net.
"They're my family now," he says.
A two-year plan
Mr. Bernbaum's play, Home is a Beautiful Word, opened at the Belfry earlier this year. It's a work of documentary theatre, created with the actual words of 58 people Mr. Bernbaum had interviewed. Each presentation was followed by a discussion with audience members, with 50 to 100 people regularly staying in their seats for it – a remarkable rate of participation. George was there on opening night, as were other members of the Power of 10.
The contract is now over (initially nine months, it was extended to a year), but it was impossible for the members to walk away. There are still regular calls, coffees out, and crisis management – such as when George, experiencing conflict with his roommate, gave notice and needed to find a new place to live – on a fixed income and with an enormous dog.
"That sent everybody into a panic. I'd be lying awake at night thinking oh my God, oh my God, what are we going to do?," says Ms. Leacock. "Because … after everything that's been done, he's come such a long way, we don't want to see him back on the street."
Joy and relief accompanied the news that he had found a place on Craigslist. The one-bedroom apartment in a pet-friendly building is within walking distance from the alternative education centre where he studies.
Buoyed, counselled and shuttled around by the group, George has learned to budget, and control his temper; he has acquired proper glasses, and, through WorkBC, his forklift operator's licence. He is getting his high-school diploma. "Last year, he took an English class and got an A," boasts Mr. Bernbaum.
After months of coffee shop quizzes, George and Ms. Murphy-Dyson went to the crowded motor vehicle office, where he passed his test. He tore over to his friend and gave her a huge hug, she says. "He was in tears and announced his success to the room."
George has a two-year plan: He wants to learn a trade – maybe welding, carpentry, plumbing – get a job and buy a truck. Having his own set of wheels, he explains, would allow him to make the 12-hour drive to a favourite spot: a natural hot spring he's found helpful for his dog's hip dysplasia.
"We used to hitchhike there every year to help her hips," he says. "And it would be of dual use: I could use it for work and bootin' around. And if I needed to help anyone else out, I could. Because a lot of people have helped me."
A play that produced by the Belfry Theatre in Victoria in January, Home is a Beautiful Word, is based on interviews playwright Joel Bernbaum conducted with local residents discussing homelessness in the B.C. city. As well as the play, what resulted was a group called the Power of 10, a support network for homeless individuals that includes Bernbaum and Belfry artistic director Michael Shamata.