Down to This: A Year Living with the Homeless
By Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall
University of Queensland Press, 2007
475 pp, $32.95 (pb)
After badly blowing a relationship, the wanderlust-prone Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall thinks he might try to discover what makes himself tick by making a 12-month base camp in 2001 in "Tent City", a self-built homeless shanty-town on the edge of Lake Ontario in Toronto. In Down to This: A Year Living with the Homeless he writes of his experiences amidst the thieves, drug addicts, vagrants, ex-cons and other human discards squatting on 27 acres of private land poisoned with mercury and lead.
Bishop-Stall meets Sluggo who built, whilst partly stoned, an improvised shack with an upside-down door and a roof tiled the wrong way round — "I'm still hoping to make the cover of Better Slums and Hovels", the comical ex-junkie jailed for violent assault tells Bishop-Stall. There is Jimmy D, ex-professional boxer, never sober, always crazy, with a growling voice "which sounds like the demented raving of a Muppet lost in the desert with nothing to drink but kerosene".
Bishop-Stall also gets to know the rats, the rain, the cold, the hunger, the crack cocaine, the "constantly high level of inebriation", the "quick violence" that undoes the acts of kindness, the tenderness, the generosity that last only until tomorrow's alcohol-fuelled fight. Self-respect and pride are challenged daily as he turns to pool-hustling, to begging, to theft, to drugs, to blowing his monthly welfare cheque on alcohol. "Hunger and booze and all this ugliness" drag him down — "I thought I'd be smart, the best bum on the block — thought I'd comb my hair every day, cook my greens, count my pennies. I pictured myself taking care of people, helping the downtrodden, the schizos."
Instead, he descends to the very bottom rungs of homelessness where "some people beg, some squeegee windows, some steal, some work jobs, some sell themselves, sell others, sell drugs" and all share an increased risk of early death — 50 a year as tallied by a nearby church.
"Booze, like drugs, is not the cause of this mess", Bishop-Stall reflects. Drug abuse and drunkenness are just "a symptom of our grief" from loss of livelihood. As one squatter, Bonnie, puts it with political acuity — "the real enemy is this goddam system that makes it impossible for us to find affordable housing, and illegal for us to squat ... it's not our choice to live like this". When Bonnie found herself homeless, "the system never did a damn thing for her", "but the people down here did". The Tent City homeless "helped her, took her in, kept her clothed and fed, helped build a house, looked out for her, became her friends".
It would be misleading to suggest, however, that any political insights into homelessness are a focus of Bishop-Stall's book. Although he warms to Bonnie, he finds her talk about "class struggle and political systems and harm reduction" irritating and he scoffs at what he sees as the naive idealists from the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC), which, sponsored by, amongst others, the Ontario Nurses Union, campaigned around homelessness and affordable housing.
Tent City is eventually razed to the ground in 2002 by the city council under an assault by mounted riot police, private security guards and bulldozers. The housing and anti-poverty activists, however, won the political war by pressuring the council to house the hundred evicted residents with the support of rent-supplement payments. Yet, for Bishop-Stall, the victory did not come from the meetings and speeches and actions of political campaigning but was a miracle that just rose up from nowhere — "Then, just like that, millions of municipal dollars appeared" to house the refugees.
When Bishop-Stall recounts a reunion of the Tent City evictees, he records the progress (education, jobs, getting off drugs) made by many former residents through access to something as basic as four solid walls, a roof and a flush toilet. Yet, despite this evidence that housing and political activism matter, Bishop-Stall remains "baffled" by the TDRC and its campaign. "They are sure it's about housing. I'm not convinced", he writes, preferring to write about the destructive lives of drug addicts, alcoholics, pimps, prostitutes and criminals. It is one thing not to romanticise or ennoble people messed up by the trauma of homelessness, it is another to denigrate the efforts of those who would do something about it.
Bishop-Stall is, to be fair, "in awe" of the "energy and conviction" of TDRC members, and he surprises himself with a political awareness ("for the first time in a while, I've actually got a political opinion: I believe that squatting should be legalised") but he remains staunchly apolitical, dismissive of the TDRC and disparaging its "earnest activist underlings" and "professional protestors like rented-mourners at a funeral", and cynical about their "ulterior motives" (motives that somehow don't seem to apply to himself as a professional writer, which, to gather material for a book contract, was why he went there, his broken-heart cover-story notwithstanding).
Bishop-Stall's own speedy descent into personal and social disfunction should have been an object lesson on the importance of quality housing to a quality life. Yet, when he writes how "I was glad I was wrong" about the importance of housing ("now that they've got their own apartments, it seems at least half of them are doing better than they were", their "battles with their personal demons" taking a turn for the better), this conclusion lacks conviction. He still "regrets not having any answers" and concludes with a lame "so, be good to vagants, beggars, winos, buskers, con men and tramps".
Bishop-Stall's reportage wallows in endless variations on a theme — the destructive behaviour of social outcasts. This is a terrible pity. Bishop-Stall has a genuine talent for creative writing, a fine ear for naturalistic dialogue and he makes the homeless alive as individuals but it is impressionistic rather than analytical, a grimy soap opera of violence and substance abuse. It is a long (475 page) journey and you will need to supply the political framework for the book to arrive at a useful destination.