Living on the Edge

Photojournalism project tells the story of the homeless in the Comox Valley…

“I don’t think most Valley residents have any idea about the reality of homelessness,” says photographer Barry Peterson, with  writer Paula Wild. The Comox Valley Homelessness Report indicates there are approxiately 250 homeless in the area, though Wild and Peterson—and many of the subjects they have profiled—believe that number is low.

Most individuals and organizations working with or advocating for the Comox Valley’s homeless population believe that the population figure of 250 errs on the low side. Paula Wild tends to agree.

Wild, a Courtenay-based author and journalist, has been working with photographer Barry Peterson of Comox since April of this year to create a unique, and indeed powerful, exhibit of portraits and the intimate stories of the community’s disenfranchised denizens.

On the Edge, Putting a Face on Homelessness graphically shows what reality is for those that many would choose to either ignore or look the other way when they come into view—the homeless. These are the people, Wild says, with no real place to call home. They are the ones scrounging cardboard and bits of old tarp in order to make a shelter, or else they are sleeping in tents or cars regardless of the weather. Food is, as often as not, one hot meal a day at the soup kitchen, or whatever can be found in dumpsters.

The public will have the opportunity to experience On the Edge in an exhibit at the Wachiay Friendship Centre (1625 B McPhee Ave.) from October 13-16 and October 19-23 from 9 am-4 pm. There will also be a Saturday opening on October 24 from 1-3 pm for those unable to attend during the week.

The formal opening of the show takes place during Homeless Action Week, with a reception on October 16, from 2-4 pm, which will include a talk by Wild and Peterson.

Wachiay provided support and encouragement for the On the Edge project, and also helped Wild and Peterson get in contact with the people who became their subjects. The organization also provided grocery cards for payment to the participants. Without Wachiay’s help, Wild says, the project wouldn’t have happened.

“On the Edge is a photo-journalism project designed to put a personal face on the homeless and those most at risk of becoming so,” says Wild. “By allowing the homeless to tell their stories in photographs and words, On the Edge hopes to replace prejudice and suspicion with understanding and compassion.”

For Wild and for Peterson, the subject became something of a heartfelt quest as the personalities of the subjects invariably encroached on their own feelings about the issue. Needless to say, as Peterson suggests, it wasn’t a conventional photographic task in terms of subject matter, nor was it mainstream journalism for Wild, she was to find, as the people told their grim tails of deprivation and often fear.

“It made me feel very grateful for what I have,” says Wild. “The main inspiration for the exhibition was to provide an eye-opener for the community and a way to have people realize this is a growing population and these people are not going away. But, more importantly, how did they get there in the first place? What is their story? Statistics are easy to talk about, but homelessness is not just a bunch of numbers. It’s real people. Every face has a story and it’s time those stories were heard.”

Wild says the project also made her examine her own thoughts and she admits that especially before they started, her thoughts weren’t always positive.

“We come with our own attitudes,” she says. “But I came to realize that once you knew people’s stories, your own attitudes change. You realize that there is this whole subclass whose lives are a constant battle to find places to stay and to find food for sustenance. And it’s a dangerous life, especially for women.”

In that context, it’s well to note that a slight majority of the homeless in the Comox Valley are female. This is a sad fact that is virtually unique to the Comox Valley community.

Both Wild and Peterson say they remained highly sensitive to the wants and needs of their subjects and took pains to assure them they would not be exploited. Needless to say, people living on the edge are wary of incursions into their realm. That considered, Wild reports that the majority of the subjects were happy about the prospect of being profiled.

“Most of them were excited,” Wild says. “In fact, some said that they feel honored to be acknowledged.”
As for the realities, most of the subjects interviewed believe that the figure of 250 chronic homeless in the Comox Valley, as cited in the Courtenay-commissioned Homelessness Report, is low.

“Something definitely needs to be done,” Wild says. “Homelessness is a reality in this community and there is a huge need for low-cost housing. I know this was a strong message in the Homelessness Report, but so far little has been done. Another need—and this is especially true for those who sleep outdoors—is a new drop-in centre. The Bridge formerly filled that need, but since it has been gone, there has been nothing to replace it.”

Photographer Peterson concurs with Wild’s feelings on the issue and also notes that to date “there has been lots of talk, but little action.

“I don’t think most Valley residents have any idea about the reality of homelessness,” Peterson says. “There’s an area called Maple Pool off Headquarters Road and the conditions there are unbelievable.”

Aside from being a highly-credentialed freelance photographer and instructor, and founding member of two art galleries in Winnipeg, Peterson also has a masters of social work, so with the project he was drawing on his experience in two realms.

A significant aspect of the homeless reality, he says, is that many are dealing with major psychiatric issues and a notable majority are also substance addicted. This reality only compounds the misery of those with whom they spoke.

As Wild indicated earlier, Peterson says it was essential for the two of them to show respect for those with whom they were dealing. They put a definite process into place.

“The first meeting was always difficult,” he says. “They were on their guard and their trust level, for good reason, was low. They were so used to being exploited. We met each subject at least three times and each time we met we brought photographs to show them. We established a relationship and that made it work.”

At the same time, rather than being a depressing project, Peterson found it to be quite the opposite. “I really like these kinds of projects,” he says. “You interact with people you normally wouldn’t, and I am really gratified by the positive feedback we’ve received so far. After the exhibition at Wachiay, however, I would like to see it go farther. I’d like to put it in various media to try and keep it current. These kinds of photographs are essentially timeless and they could have impact in years hence.”

As On the Edge is a hard-hitting photo-journalism exhibition, it is only appropriate that we see, in the words of one of the subjects of the exhibit, what homelessness really is like for one who must deal with it on a daily basis. See sidebar below for Ruby’s story.

On the Edge… Ruby’s Story

“Being homeless is no slice of ice,” says Ruby, 51. “Living in cardboard, sleeping on cement, no coat, cold, never knowing who’s going to attack you. It’s dangerous and really scary, especially for women.”

Ruby used to be a caterer. She had a freezer full of food and was always cooking for friends. But two and a half years ago she got double pneumonia and was hospitalized. She was in critical condition for six weeks and has no memory of that time. When released from the hospital she discovered her landlord had sold her belongings and rented out her apartment. “Everything I had was gone,” she whispers. “I cried and cried.”

Now Ruby lives in a tent and collects bottles and cans earning $20 to $40 a day. “I only get $268 a month from social assistance,” she notes. “Without the bottles and cans I couldn’t survive.” Her shopping cart is her life and she takes it everywhere. But she has to be careful, while eating lunch at the soup kitchen her bottles have been stolen.

In the summer Ruby tries to keep an eye on young girls in the park; she knows the scars being molested leaves behind. She’s been arrested—“I kicked a guy in the nuts because he wouldn’t give me a peanut butter sandwich and I was hungry”—and admits she’s an alcoholic. “It eases the pain,” she explains. “My mother was an alcoholic and died when I was young and my stepfather abused me. The rest of my relatives gave up on me years ago. I don’t consider myself as having a family any more.

“Being homeless has been a learning experience,” she adds. “I’ve figured out how to fight my way through life, be tough and look after myself. I try not to think about the past and have a sense of humour but I’m a very angry woman. I’m full of anger.”

Ruby acknowledges there is lots of support and resources for the homeless. “What we need is low income housing,” she states. “We hear lots of promises but never see anything concrete. Five homeless people died last winter. It’s a rough life. I’m a survivor but won’t be if I have to spend one more winter outside.”

Learn more about Ruby and the realities of other homeless people like her at the On the Edge exhibit starting October 13 at the Wachiay Friendship Centre, 1625B McPhee Avenue, Courtenay.