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Nowhere to Call Home - Leah den Bok: Photographs and Interviews

Woman with a COVID-19 Mask

Toronto, 2020   

Through a broken face mask that she had to hold in place, Selina told my dad and I that her life, that was already hard before the pandemic, has become almost unbearable.

“Everything is shut down!” she exclaimed. “Even here [at Fred Victor Housing] I can’t even visit someone to spend the night. You’re stuck! I can’t go shopping to get new clothes…. All the injection sites are closed down. I’ve overdosed four times.”

Selina then told us about a recent harrowing experience in which she overdosed and woke up at the hospital. “I woke up in the morning, all drugged up with whatever drugs they drugged me with at the hospital, with nowhere to go. They don’t realize that there’s no shelters…. All the 24-hour drop-ins that are usually available, you can’t even go inside. And it’s ******* cold at night!”

“Where do you sleep at night?” my dad asked Selina.

“I don’t. I walk around,” she replied dejectedly.

Woman with a COVID-19 Mask

Toronto, 2020   

Through a broken face mask that she had to hold in place, Selina told my dad and I that her life, that was already hard before the pandemic, has become almost unbearable.

“Everything is shut down!” she exclaimed. “Even here [at Fred Victor Housing] I can’t even visit someone to spend the night. You’re stuck! I can’t go shopping to get new clothes…. All the injection sites are closed down. I’ve overdosed four times.”

Selina then told us about a recent harrowing experience in which she overdosed and woke up at the hospital. “I woke up in the morning, all drugged up with whatever drugs they drugged me with at the hospital, with nowhere to go. They don’t realize that there’s no shelters…. All the 24-hour drop-ins that are usually available, you can’t even go inside. And it’s ******* cold at night!”

“Where do you sleep at night?” my dad asked Selina.

“I don’t. I walk around,” she replied dejectedly.

Amy

Toronto, 2020

Amy told my dad and I that she has lived in Toronto for seven years. Prior to that, she said, she lived in Kawartha Lakes. When my dad asked Amy if she has been back there since moving to Toronto, she said that she has not. This despite the fact that her family are all there.

“So, you don’t see your family anymore?” my dad asked her.

“No, not anymore,” she replied.

“Where do you sleep? Do you sleep at a shelter?” my dad asked Amy.

“Ah, no I stay right here?” was her surprising reply.

She, then told us that she dislikes shelters because they are “corrupt.”

“Yeah, a lot of people steal things,” she elaborated, “go through your stuff, take what they want.”

When we met Amy her face mask, that was broken, was dangling from her right ear. Throughout the photo shoot, she held it in place with her left hand. Afterwards, knowing that my dad had a couple of extra masks in his pocket, I asked him to give one to Amy, which he did.

"Thank you so much!" she said, as she gratefully received it.

 

 

 

 

Homeless Man & Dog

New York City, 2015

I tried several times while photographing this homeless man and his dog to capture the obviously close bond between them. However, try as I might, all of the photos seemed too posed. It wasn’t until we were walking away that my dad happened to look back and saw the man with his arms wrapped around his dog in a spontaneous, loving embrace, their foreheads resting affectionately against each other. I quickly ran back and began snapping pictures. Later, when I walked away once more, I did so with the satisfaction of knowing I had just captured a special moment on film between a homeless man and his best friend.

Edward

Toronto, 2020

Edward, who is sixty-seven years old, told us that he has lived in Toronto, “All my life.” With no family around he said that he sometimes gets lonely.

I, along with my dad and boyfriend, ran into Edward outside the Fred Victor shelter, at the corner of Jarvis and Queen, where he was living. When we encountered him, he was in the process of pushing a shopping cart loaded with garbage bags full of bottles to the store for refunds.

“Has the pandemic made your life more difficult?” my dad asked Edward.

He replied, “Yeah, it has. [The libraries and Tim Hortons are closed.] The parks are closed. Some of the beer stores are closed. [The park at] Allan Gardens is closed, but you can walk through it….You can’t sit in there. You’ve got to keep walking.”

Justin

Toronto, 2019

It was a bitterly cold Boxing Day when my dad and I came across Justin and two of his friends at the corner of Yonge and Queen in Toronto. He was stretched out on a mattress. A couple of dirty blankets and a tarp protected him from the elements. Garbage was strewn around.

Justin told us that he has lived in Toronto, “Half my life.” Before that he lived in Hamilton.

When asked if he has any family, Justin replied, “I’m the only … only person. I have no family.” He told us that while growing up he lived in a group home. He hasn’t seen his family since he was a child.

When I asked him if he misses them, he replied with a simple, “No.”

“Do you have a lot of friends?” I asked him. At this he laughed and said, “Yeah, a little bit, a little bit of friends.”

Jeff

Toronto, 2019

My dad and I came across Jeff beside the Dundas Square on Boxing Day in 2019. We were immediately drawn to the outfit he had on. He was wearing a leather coat, hoodie, two hats, one mitten, and at least three or four brightly coloured scarves that were tied together and wrapped around his neck.

When I complimented Jeff on his outfit, with a note of pride in his voice he replied, “Yeah, I just put it on now.” He then went on to tell us that it took him three days to find the materials for it and put it all together.

As it was a damp, cool day, I asked him, “Does it keep you warm?”

“Yeah, good and warm!” he answered.

“What did you do for Christmas yesterday?” I asked Jeff.

“Nothing!” was all he said. Jeff told us that, with the exception of his dad, with whom he has little contact, he has no family.

Rick

Toronto, 2019

It was a cool, drizzly April afternoon when I spotted Rick briskly walking east along Gould Street in Toronto, just down the road from the newly renamed Sheldon & Tracy Levy Student Learning Centre (formerly called the Ryerson University Student Learning Centre).

As I was driving north along Yonge Street at the time, it fell upon my dad to jump out of the car and chase Rick down. After my dad explained to Rick what it was we were doing, he consented, with a nod of his head, to having his photograph taken and being interviewed.

Unfortunately, Rick is almost completely nonverbal, communicating more with grunts than with words. As such, my dad was unable to elicit any information from him, with the exception of his name. (And we may even be mistaken about that.)

Ken

Toronto, 2019

I was driving east along Front St. W. with my dad, when he first spotted Ken sitting, blanket pulled over his head, in the middle of the sidewalk that was part of what marked the southern boundary of Toronto’s financial district.

For the next five minutes I drove around, frantically, trying to find a parking spot. By the time I did, fifteen minutes had passed. Needless to say, we were much relieved to find that Ken was still there, and in the same position.

When my dad asked him where he sleeps at night, he pointed to the north/west corner of the intersection and said, “I sleep behind that, ah, parking metre over there. There’s a vent there … Yeah, I have no shelter right? So when it rains I just get all wet, and it takes me about three days to dry off with the vent.”

“You don’t want to stay at a shelter?” my dad asked Ken.

“I’d rather not,” he replied. “There are bed bugs in shelters, eh? All the shelters here have bed bugs everywhere, pretty much. I’d rather sleep outside.”

Stephen

Collingwood, 2018

Throughout my photo shoot with Stephen, he had my dad and I laughing repeatedly. While I was chatting with him on a bench outside of a bank in Collingwood, one of the bank’s managers stormed towards him - as he was to later put it - “barking like a Chihuahua.” (She had evidently been told that someone outside the bank had open liquor, and wrongly assumed it was Stephen.)

Stephen told us that he moved to Collingwood, where he had been born, from Toronto about 14 years ago. Stephen told us that, recently, when he had been panhandling, someone walked past him and rudely exclaimed, “Well, you look well fed!”

Despite being offended at the gall of the person, Stephen said he bit his tongue. However, still indignant as he recounted this incident to us he said, “I wanted to say, 'You son of a *****! I could have been 400 pounds yesterday, you don’t know!'"

Sadly, we were later to learn that Stephen was beaten up several months after my photo shoot with him, and died soon afterwards.

Joshua

Toronto, 2018

I first spotted Joshua as he was enjoying lunch at Toronto’s Scott Mission with a couple hundred other people experiencing homelessness. I knew right away that, with his unruly hair and the blanket draped around him, he would make an interesting subject for a photograph. And so when, a quarter of an hour later I saw him standing in front of the entrance of the Mission, I signaled for my dad to ask him if he would be willing to model for me.

I was very relieved when he said yes. Unfortunately, most of what Joshua said made no sense. For example, when my dad asked Joshua what his name was, he replied, “Um, I don’t have a name. I’m just, ah, an assassin for the AUS.” (The “AUS”, I was to find out later, is an abbreviation for the Army of the United States.)

“What do you want people to call you though?” my dad asked Joshua.

He replied, “Confirmation Joshua Neil Jackson” before giving us his social insurance number.

Jesus

Toronto, 2020

When my dad asked Jesus if, for $10, I could take his picture while he asked him a few questions, he enthusiastically replied, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!”

In answer to my question of whether he was having a good day, he replied, “I just woke up. My leg is hurting. When I get my ten bucks then I can buy my medicine, and then I … I will be okay.” Jesus said this as he was balancing on one leg.

“Too bad we don’t have a stool for you to sit on,” my dad said sympathetically.

“Everything is good sir!” Jesus replied emphatically. “What I need is ten dollars and I will be good.”

“Are you in a lot of pain?” my dad asked Jesus.

“Yeah, awesome pain,” was Jesus’ response. Understandably, Jesus told us that the pain in his leg has made it hard for him to sleep. Complicating matters is the fact that his fear of catching COVID-19 in a crowded shelter has forced him out on to the sidewalk.

Larry

Toronto, 2019

“My mom used to take me around … She died now, and ever since she died I’ve been on the street,” Larry told my dad and I. As he told us this he broke down into tears. “When I first came to the city … I was, ah … working … as a bricklayer and got hurt. I haven’t been working for a year and a half now … Mom used to bring me by here, and I’d go, ‘Mom, I don’t need to go here to eat. I got money.’ She’d say, ‘Some day, son, you might not. I want you to be safe when I’m gone.’ So she took me by and showed me the soup shop. Showed me this place. Showed me all the places I can get something to eat. I, ah … I haven’t been so desolate since she’s been gone, in my whole life.”

Through a veil of tears Larry went on to tell us that he was just eight when his father died: “He had just passed away. My mom couldn’t handle us. She had a breakdown. Children’s Aid came to take us. I remember I was looking out the back window crying … watch[ing] my mom get smaller and smaller….”

Cory

Toronto, 2019

When my dad and I approached Cory, he greeted us with a warm smile and kind eyes.

“How are you today,” my dad asked him.

He replied, “I’m fine, but I’m hungry.”

Cory went on to tell us that he is “an out of work, forestry worker. Um, you know I’ve been working in Vancouver. Um, at those temporary jobs … temporary labour jobs. So, I guess that’s what I’ve been doing with my time. But there’s lots of opportunities to work. There is lots of opportunities. I guess they’re all out West….I guess I’ll have to go and find more work there.”

When I asked Cory if he has any children, he replied, “I have a 13-year-old daughter. She’s in Thunder Bay….I don’t get to see her too much. Her name is Amalee.”

Then, with a note of sadness in his voice, Cory said, “I’d like to see her. I haven’t been having much luck…. Oh well! Things are getting better. Things will always get better.”

Janice

New York City, 2015

The sun was beginning to set upon another hot August day in New York City, and it would soon be too dark to take photographs. As my dad and I walked past a small park, we saw a little old woman standing hunched over a park bench. She was very meticulously covering the bench with newspapers. Perhaps she was preparing her bed for the night. After introducing ourselves, my dad asked if I could take her picture. After hesitating a moment, Janice said I could.

She may have been self-conscious or sensitive to the bright sunlight, for she seldom raised her head or opened her eyes. Nonetheless, she was very friendly and clearly enjoyed our attention. Janice talked very fast the whole time and looked down while speaking, so we had difficulty understanding her. We did catch, however, that she was indigenous and had lived in New York City her whole life.

Duffy

Hamilton, 2018

“My old man’s passed away,” Duffy declared to us. “Everyone’s passed away. My grandmother’s passed away. She outlived her kids. I wouldn’t like that! … But she still had her mind.”

But despite the fact that Duffy, seemingly, has fond memories of his family, it seems that all was not well with his relationship with them.

“I was a ward of the court at four,” he told us sadly. “I’ve been on my own since four.”

Duffy, who is 58-years-old, was born and raised in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area).

“I was born in York, the first capital of Canada,” he told us with a note of pride in his voice. However, he grew up in Brampton. “It was 30,000 when I moved there in ’64!” he said excitedly. “Thirty thousand people!”

Duffy has travelled the country from coast to coast. When asked what his least favourite place to visit was, he replied, “I’d say the toughest city is Winnipeg, Canada.”

Yvonne

Toronto, 2018

“Um … my daughter’s in Nova Scotia,” Yvonne told my dad and I. “Ah, she was in Costa Rica. Now she’s in Nova Scotia getting her Bachelor of Fine Arts … ".

“Do you get to see her very much?” my dad asked Yvonne.

“No. I talk to her, ah, online, but I haven’t seen … I haven’t seen her in two years. She might be down here in September, come back here to live, so….”.

“It must be pretty hard to not get to see [your daughter] for two years?” my dad said to Yvonne. “That’s not very often.”

All that Yvonne was able to say in reply was, “She’s twenty-nine, um….”, before bursting into tears.

After several moments had passed my dad said, “You’re pretty close to your daughter, I guess, eh?”

With downcast eyes Yvonne whispered “Yeah”.

“What’s your daughter’s name?” my dad asked her.

Looking up she said, “Danielle”.

 

Mary Ellen

Toronto, 2017

Mary Ellen has been on the street for almost as long as she can remember.

“I left home at eleven,” she told my dad and I. “I raised myself. Yeah, I ran away…. Actually, the apartments are torn down now, but I used to sleep in hallways and stuff. And, yeah, I … couch-surfed. I didn’t have any friends.”

Now a middle-aged woman of fifty-four, Mary Ellen is hoping, soon, to be able to find a place to stay.

“I’m, ah … I try to get off the streets. I try every day now. Yeah, I … you know, when I was … I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Mary Ellen admitted to us that she suffers from a mental illness. “I’m kind of emotional I guess,” she said, “but I’ve been having emotions. I have bi-polar personality disorder.”

Although Mary Ellen has several children, she has no contact with them. “I have five children, but they don’t talk to me.” And so, just as she was when she was a young girl of eleven, Mary Ellen is homeless and alone.

Kimberly

Brisbane, 2018

Up until three years ago Kimberly, together with Matty, her partner of eleven years, and their seven children, all lived happily together in a house of their own.

“In 2015 we had a house fire”, she told us. “Everyone was okay, but we lost the kids to Child Safety. And we ended up homeless.”

Sadly, Kimberly now feels as if everyone, including social services, has given up on her and Matty. Kimberly told us that her children were her life and that losing them has been very hard on her. However, she does see some of them every Friday. (She sees the boys one week and the girls the next.) This has helped, somewhat, to ease her pain.

Kimberly’s immediate goal is to find a job. This will enable her to get a place of her own. (She currently sleeps under a bridge.) Then, hopefully, she will be able to get her children back. There is only one small problem though: her identification was lost in the fire, and without it she can’t get a job.

Vaughan

Brisbane, 2018

Though born and raised in Dunedin, New Zealand, Vaughan is of Scottish and Welsh descent.

“Yeah, [my ancestors] went to New Zealand a very long time ago. Um … yeah, [they were] some of the first inhabitants. They colonized New Zealand….”

When asked by my mother if he has any skills, Vaughan replied, “I’m an electrician….” Seeing the look of surprise on my mother’s face he, then, laughed and said, “I’m not here because I can’t work. When you end up on the street, it’s more of a choice. No matter what they tell you, it’s a choice.”

After Vaughan made this surprising revelation, he told us that he was planning on re-entering the work force and getting a place of his own.

“I just renewed my electrician’s license again…. So I’m ready to go back to work doing that.” He, then, mumbled, as if to himself, “But I’m not looking forward to it.” After he had said this all three of us laughed.

Patrick

Barrie, 2018

My dad was delighted to find out, early in his conversation with Patrick, who is currently living at Youth Haven in Barrie, that he is a fellow Collingwoodite. Their conversation went as follows:

“I have no family around. My mom lives in Collingwood, but, ah …”
“Oh, Collingwood! That’s where we’re from.”
“Oh, really?”
“Yeah, we came up here from Collingwood.”
“Right on!”
“I’ve lived there all my life.”
“Yeah, I grew up there too. Spruce Street.”
“We live on Victory Drive, near … the high school.”
“C.C.I. [Collingwood Collegiate Institute]?”
“Yeah, C.C.I..”
“It’s a good town, Collingwood.”
“You think you might move back there some time?”
“Ah, probably not. No”
“So, you still have contact with your mom?”
“I talk with her on Facebook and stuff like that.”

Patrick told us that he has just recently enrolled in a college program for culinary arts. “I like to cook!” he told us.

"Pops"

Toronto, 2018

“Pops” is a tough, no nonsense type of person. He only, very reluctantly agreed to allow my dad and I to photograph and interview him when my dad told him that he didn’t have to answer any questions that he didn’t want to.

He exercised this right very early in the photo-shoot/interview when my dad asked him where he had grown up. He responded, “All over! … Me and my brother, we were in the [foster] system … But I don’t want to go into that.”

When a couple of passersby stopped to watch what we were doing, “Pops” drove them away with a gruff, “What is this, a circus?”

“Pops” replied to the first couple of questions my dad asked him with terse one-word answers. This changed when my dad told him that we live in Collingwood. He answered excitedly, “Oh yeah?” “Have you ever been to Collingwood?”, my dad asked him.

“I use to work on the ships. I was a welder. Mostly here [in Toronto]. I spent some time [in Collingwood] in the Arlington Tavern.”

Misia

Hamilton, 2018

Although Misia is a Toronto native, she is of Polish descent. After completing university in 1993, she lived in Poland for 3 ½ years. She has called Hamilton her home for the past 20 years.

Misia has two children, Daniel, 18, and Christina, 14. However, she has no contact with them.

“I haven’t seen them in two years”, she said. “And it’s been an extremely stressful two years for me….I did see them briefly though. Yeah, I did get to see them, um, just in passing. They kind of dropped in unexpectedly, and then popped right back out, literally. Like, no, it really looked like someone put a blanket sheet over top of them and then scooped them out from under me.”

For the next four minutes Misia, seemingly without pausing to take a breath, talked about such diverse subjects as: Freud, WWII, traffic congestion, pharmaceutical companies, Morse code, carburetors, and Hitler. (Unfortunately, most of what she said made no sense whatsoever.)

 

Amy

Guelph, 2018

“All my exes don’t live in Texas, they live in federal institutions,” Amy told my dad and I, laughing. However, it soon became apparent that Amy’s laughter concealed a deep-seated sadness that she carries around in her heart.

“I … um … I’m thirty-six now, but I was widowed at twenty. He died saving my life in a house fire. After that I had to leave New Brunswick.”

Asked if her and her late husband had children, she said, “No, we were just starting to try.”

When my dad said, “That’s a very sad story”, she replied, “Yeah, it sucks!”

Sue

Toronto, 2018

When my dad and I met Sue outside the Eaton Centre in Toronto on a brisk February day in 2018 she was sitting on the ground crying.

Sue told us that she lost her mother when she was just a child and is estranged from her dad, with whom she hasn’t spoken in fifteen years.

“My mother died when I was eight”, she said. “She succumbed to her addiction and I kicked it. I was having problems with the kids’ father and I ended up in the demon. And I saw what I was doing and all I could see were my kids and I….”

"You didn’t want to go the way of your mother?” my dad jumped in.

“That’s right!” Sue exclaimed.

“Well, good for you!” my dad said congratulating her.

“Yep, I’ve been clean now for fifteen years … My dad’s out in Elliot Lake, but he kind of disowned me … When I became pregnant my father pretty much gave me an ultimatum, "Have an abortion or get the **** out!" So I got out. And then he also decided at the time to tell me that he’s not my real father ... Oh well.”

Shawn

Brisbane, 2018

When my mother commented to Shawn that he seemed happy, he responded, “Yeah, I’m always happy. Why be miserable? Life’s only once. I went through a bit of a downer in life once, at one stage. But … um … yeah. I snapped out of that. I’ve been off the drugs now for about eleven months clean.”

Shawn proudly told us that he once volunteered at the Brisbane Streetlevel Mission, run by the Salvation Army, for five years. “Yeah, they help me”, he said. “So I thought, ‘Why not?’ You know?”

“Do you feel safe on the street?” my mother asked Shawn.

“Yeah, yeah”, he said, “of course. Yeah, because I know a lot of people. It’s like a little community. Do you know what I mean? Everyone knows everyone sort of thing. We look after each other, you know? We help each other when you can. Well, some of them do.”

Then, looking in the direction of some of his friends who were standing nearby he shouted, “Some of them are just freeloaders!” a remark which aroused a chorus of protests.

John

Toronto, 2015

When my dad and I first spotted John, he was sitting beside the Eaton Centre in Toronto. My dad approached John and asked him about modeling for me.

“I was wondering if my daughter, Leah, could take your photograph?”

“Why?”

“She’s planning to study photography at university and is trying to build up her portfolio.”

“Not good enough.”

“Well, lately, she’s been photographing homeless people in several North

American cities, such as Kitchener, New York, and Toronto.”

“Still not good enough.”

“She hopes, with these photographs, to both humanize the homeless and draw

attention to their plight.”

“Okay.”

Peter

New York City, 2015

It was a hot August day in New York City, and though it was late in the afternoon, heat still radiated from the asphalt and sidewalks.

We saw Peter sitting beside a busy street, his face in his right hand. My dad approached him, introduced us, and asked if I could take his picture. There was no response. Again my dad put the question to him. This time, without opening his eyes or lifting his head, Peter gave us permission with an ever-so-slight nod of his head.

During the next five minutes, Peter never moved a muscle. Like Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker, he sat motionless. Everything about him—the way he held his face in his hand, his expression, his body language—gave us the impression of a young man who was despondent.

Lucy

Toronto, 2015

Lucy once had big dreams. “I’ve always been a writer, like, journaling and short stories and what not,” she told me and my dad. “But now, it’s hard to keep up with the stuff you even love, because it’s just survival.”

Lucy is an opioid addict. “I’ve been an opioid addict since I was fourteen, but it was always manageable. I, like, had a job. I was going to school. I had my own place to live. I had interests.” However, one day, she reached the point where her addiction took over her life. She found herself with no job, no schooling to speak of, and no place to live.

Life on the street is harder for Lucy than for most homeless people. “I have a hard time with sleeping outside and stuff like that,” she said, her eyes closing repeatedly as we interviewed her. “A lot of people, like, you know, they adjust …

Nathan

Toronto, 2017

When we met Nathan he was sitting in front of a store on Yonge Street, a mere 30 metres across the road from the massive Eaton Centre, North America’s busiest mall with almost 50 million visitors a year—more than Disneyland and Walt Disney World combined.

In stark contrast, Nathan appeared a lonely and forlorn figure. As I stood and watched him, crowds of people filed past him, seemingly oblivious to his existence.

Nathan has lived in Toronto all of his life—all 68 years of it. His mother, who is 85, also lives in Toronto, though his father died a long time ago. He has a sister who also lives in Toronto, though he has no contact with her.

Nathan told us that he keeps to himself and doesn’t have a lot of friends—though whether this is by choice or not I do not know. When asked if the people he meets on the street are friendly to him, he replied with a simple, “No.”

Mike

Barrie, 2017

We came across Mike on a mild day in late August of 2017 as he was about to go into the Barrie Bayside Mission Centre in Barrie, Ontario for supper. He kindly agreed to delay eating his meal for a few minutes while I photographed him and my dad asked him a few questions.

“Well, it’s a nice day today”, my dad said.

“[It’s] a good day folks, eh?”, Mike acknowledged with a chuckle. When asked how long he’d been living in Barrie, Mike replied, “Oh, uh, 24 years. I was born in England. Yeah, South Country [in] Lester. I was just a young kid in those days. I come from a strict family. [I have] good memories [of my time there].”

When my dad asked Mike if he had any family in Barrie, or even Canada, he replied, “Uh, no. I’m just a quiet person. [I] don’t drink alcohol, don’t take pills. Nothing. Alcohol will kill ya, [and] too many have gotten into that these days.”

Anxious not to miss his lunch, Mike, then, said, “I’m going to have to go”, at which point we said goodbye.

Mark

Washington, 2020

Mark told my boyfriend Alejandro and I that he has lived in Washington D.C. for, “Maybe about five years.”

When I asked him what he did before he began to experience homelessness, he replied, “Um, I took care of kids….I have a daughter. My ex had two kids. I took care of her and the kids.”

Mark went on to tell us, “I write all the time. Poems, songs, stories.”

When we met Mark he had four of his poems on display, printed on bristle board that he had taped together to make a freestanding structure. Here is one of them: 

There Was You

It’s cold outside. Oh yes,
it’s cold outside.
But not as cold as 
the winter souls that 
pass me by
without as much as a hi,
despite my hellos.
I would stop and wonder why,
but I don’t like wasting time.
Besides the wind just turned,
and my face is freezing through.
Then out of the cold, and 
out of the blue,
There was you.

Gashaw

Toronto, 2019

My dad and I met Gashaw across the road from the Sheldon & Tracy Levy Student Learning Centre in Toronto.

No sooner did the photo shoot begin than Gashaw surprised us by saying, “I want to be a CP24 news reporter, Reader’s Digest. I don’t want to make them cry though. I’m gay though. No, I’m not gay. I’m lesbian. Goshface.” (Gashaw repeated this latter word throughout the photo shoot.)

When I asked Gashaw if he has a lot of brothers and sisters, he replied, “I have about … how many sisters? Fifty-two division[s]!”

After only about three minutes into the photo shoot, Gashaw began to get impatient, saying, “How many pictures you take, miss? This is my camera, see?” As Gashaw said this he reached out and grabbed my lens. “I made camera. Goshface. Silva. Polish.”

Needless to say, at this point my dad and I brought the photo shoot to a close. After paying Gashaw for modeling for us, we bade him goodbye.

Diamond

Toronto, 2019

When we came across Diamond she was sitting outside of a safe injection site in Toronto looking forlorn.

Throughout my 15-minute photo shoot with Diamond she just stared down at the ground. Seldom did she make eye contact. Frequently her eyes filled with tears.

Although both of Diamond's parents, who are divorced, live in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), she has no real relationship with either of them. She told us that her dad was mean to her.

“I started working in grade 10,” she told us, “and every single paycheck that I made he’d make me sign it over to him. He took it.”

Asked if her mother is good to her, Diamond said, “She’s an alcoholic. So her being an addict too … she just can’t, or is incapable.”

Tragically, the love of her life, her boyfriend, who had only just overcome his drug habit, recently slipped in the shower and died.

Old Man

Toronto, 2019

"Hi, I'm Tim," my dad said as he extended his hand to the old man sitting on his walker beside the Dundas Square in Toronto. "What's your name?"

"OLD MAN!" he practically shouted at my dad, ignoring his outstretched hand.

"Are you having a good day?" my dad asked Old Man."

"NO!" he said, again raising his voice.

"Have you lived in Toronto a long time?" I asked Old Man, smiling.

He replied to me with a curt, "YES."

"Do you like Toronto?" I asked again.

"NO!" he replied in like manner.

After this he refused to answer any more questions.

"You have nice eyes!" I complimented Old Man.

"Just take the picture!" he demanded. When only three minutes had transpired Old Man got up and said, "Goodbye! Goodbye!"

"It was nice to meet you," I said to Old Man as, with his back turned, he began to walk away.

"Could I get your first name?"

"OLD MAN!" he shouted.

Stephen

Oshawa, 2018

When my dad and I came across Stephen he was standing in the parking lot of Cornerstone, a homeless shelter in Oshawa, ON, where he said he had been staying for the past two weeks. He told us that he has lived in Oshawa all of his life.

“Do you have any children?” I asked him.

“No, I raised my sister and brother,” he answered. “My parents broke up from drinking. My mother was a partyer; my father wasn’t. Then they changed bed[s]. Then they changed the way they were.”

Asked if he still sees his siblings, he replied, “All the time! But my brother’s an alcoholic. He drinks six beers a day.”

Stephen went on to tell us, “Until recently I had a long beard that made me look like Santa Clause."

"Yeah, you would look like Santa Clause with the big beard,” my dad replied. “You could get a job as Santa.”

“I did!” Stephen replied. “I had Santa’s hat on with the lights going.”

“Did you enjoy doing that?” my dad asked Stephen.

“Yes, I did!” he replied.

Chris

Toronto, 2019

When we met Chris he was huddled behind the upturned collar of his coat in an effort to protect himself from the 23 kilometer winds howling down University Ave. which, together with the -10°C temperature, made a formidable force.

Chris told us that he has two sons. “I have two kids … One is twenty-five. He’s my step-son. And one who is twenty-two. And he’s got two kids already, so that’s why I don’t stay with him. He’s got too much trouble as it is, you know?”

When my dad asked Chris if he talks with his son, he replied, “I was until Christmas eve. And, ah, not that we had a falling out or anything, but, um, somebody stole my cell phone Christmas Eve … People are always stealing from me.”

“Do you have a place where you stay at night?” my dad asked Chris.

“Ah, sometimes I find a heating vent,” he replied.

“Do you, at least, have sleeping bags?” my dad asked Chris in disbelief.

He responded, “I had one until someone stole it last week.”

Allan

Toronto, 2019

Allan told us that he used to be a writer. “I used to write stories for a living … Ah …Toronto Star … Mostly features, about 3,000 words … I was just a freelance, feature writer. So I would do one story at a time, then go to another publication.”

Allan told us that he also wrote for NOW and Appeal.

“Writing”, he said, “was my passion.”

When I asked Allan if he has any children he replied, “Ah, no.” Then, correcting himself, he said, “No, I think I have at least one … But I don’t know. I just don’t know. [The mother] came up to me at a laundry mat … and said, "Is this your father?" and she said yes. And the little girl, she … she grabbed my hand.”

“What caused you to be homeless?” I asked Allan.

He replied that it was a “weird trip” with his family, and “that’s why I stay away from them.”

Aisha

Toronto, 2018

Over the past couple of years my dad and I have come across many panhandlers, but no one like Aisha. The first thing that caught our attention was her age. Never before had we seen a child begging for money. Nor had we ever encountered a panhandler wearing a hijab—a veil or headscarf frequently worn by Muslim women.

Her sign was also intriguing. It said:

Please help me
I have 2 siblings
I need money, food, and school.
God Bless, Thank you

Aisha, we learned, is only 16-years-old. Her family moved here from Bosnia, a country on the Balkan Peninsula in Southern Europe.

“We moved here recently” she said, “like year ago and we didn’t have any help … then my mom got sick and can’t walk.”

Aisha lives, she said, with her mother and two younger siblings. (As such, although Aisha is not technically speaking homeless, she is in obvious danger of becoming so.)

When my dad asked about her father she replied, “My parents are divorced so I do not know my father.”

Dexter

Toronto, 2018

No sooner had my dad begun to ask Dexter some questions, than he opened up to him about an horrific event, in 2001, that shook the foundations of his world. 

"I use to live in [Osaka, Japan] until my wife and son died … ah, drunk driver. My son was 15-years-old. Ah, my wife was taken back for a medical exam. I could’ve taken a day off, but I didn’t. Instead I went to work and because of that, ah, she took the subway and, ah, got hit by a drunk driver, and, ah, eight other people also got hit that day. And, ah, I kind of got myself down about that.”

Despite referring to himself as a “dumb donkey”, he speaks no less than 13 languages.

Despite all of his hardships, Dexter said that he wouldn’t change a thing.

"I wouldn’t trade any of the bad for the, ah … [You never want to] change anything that happens because all the good things that come along you’ll miss out on.”

Christian

Brisbane, 2018

Christian told us that while growing up in Sydney, Australia, he always felt that his mother—who was an Africaner (i.e., a white person from South Africa whose ancestors are Dutch)—was keeping a dark secret from him. This eventually became a matter of contention between the two of them.

“I got fed lies and lies and lies! When I grew up I got lies and lies and lies. And I wanted to find out for myself. When I grew up, I didn’t belong.”

Sensing Christian’s discomfort my mother tried to change the subject, “Where do you see….”

But Christian wasn’t finished. “When you feel you don’t belong, you’re going to ask questions. And I did. And I found out for myself, when they confessed.”

Christian told us that what they “confessed” to, is that he is the product of a sexual assault. “My mother got raped!”, he told us.

He would, eventually, become estranged from his mother—who would go on to die from a drug overdose—and, at the young age of 17, find himself on the street.

 

Leah den Bok

Leah den Bok is a 20-year-old photography student at Sheridan College in Oakville, ON. Since the age of 13 she has been mentored by Joel Sartore, a National Geographic photographer and Fellow.

For the past several years Leah has travelled to Toronto, New York, Washington D.C., and Brisbane, Australia photographing the homeless and recording their stories.

  • Summer 2017 CBC's “The National” aired a documentary about Leah's photography and stories of people experiencing homelessness
  • Fall 2017 the BBC ran a story about her
  • She has since been featured in newspapers in the United States and the Netherlands as well as in “Corriere della Sera” Italy’s largest daily, who ran a two-page spread on Leah
  • Leah attended, by invitation “ARTWALK NY 2017” and the “Women of the World 2018” festival in Brisbane, Australia, where her work was exhibited
  •  In 2017 she shared the stage with Prince Harry and Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General to the U.N., at the Air Canada Centre for the “WE Day” and “WE Family” events where she addressed 40,000 people
  •  Leah has been a keynote speaker at the annual “She Talks” events in Cambridge and Muskoka
  • Recently, Leah entered into a partnership with the Salvation Army Canada, and is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at several of their upcoming “Hope in the City” events in cities such as Toronto, Hamilton and Sudbury.

Recent Awards:

  • IDRF Youth Impact Award 2018
  • Murray Clerkson Award 2019
  • SNAP Photo Competition 2020
  • Ascend Rising Star of the Year Award 2020.

Leah den Bok has published three volumes of her book "Nowhere to Call Home - Photographs and Stories of the Homeless".  They are available to purchase on her website: humanizingthehomeless.ca 

You can follow Leah den Bok on IG: instagram.com/humanizing_the_homeless/

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