Sunday, January 3, 2010

Down to This

Down to This
Author: Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall
Vintage Canada, 2005
475 pages

When I was in Toronto last summer, my co-worker friend Rosa lent me this book to read. It sat on my shelf until New Year's Day, but once I started it, I couldn't put it down. The strange thing is, I really didn't think the subject matter (homelessness) would interest me that much. But from page one, I was fascinated.

Subtitled Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown, this is a very raw description of a group of homeless people squatting on 28 undeveloped acres between an expressway and Lake Ontario in Toronto. The land is owned by Home Depot.

The author (known as "Shaun") goes to Tent City with the intention of living among the people for a year or so and writing a book about his experience. He's a middle-class, university-educated young man in his mid-twenties who has already had several adventures, from hitchhiking to Costa Rica to working in Spain and Italy. But none of his previous experiences compare to what unfolds in Tent City.

He tries to live in an actual tent at first, but soon learns that there aren't many tents in Tent City. In order to survive the winter, he must build something more substantial. Using castoff materials and items given to him by the other Tent City residents, he builds a one room shack, and furnishes it with a bed and other items he is given or finds.

One by one, he introduces his neighbors, and for many of them we learn the circumstances that brought them there: most were abused as children, and most are not willing to live within the "normal" rules of society. In Tent City, they can pretty much do as they please, including smoking marijuana or crack, or staying drunk all day and night.

Despite the way in which they live, Tent City residents don't consider themselves to be poor. In fact, many of them have the same material things as ordinary citizens. A few people even have televisions and computers, using electricity "hijacked" from the city. Several of the residents have regular jobs, and at least one makes a salary of $80k.

There is a lot of sadness in Tent City, though, and Shaun writes realistically about the rawness of daily life there and the stories of the people like Eddie and Karen, the crack addicts who vow to change when their baby is born, but then slowly fall prey to the realities of their world; Bonnie, the clinically depressed social activist; Hawk, the survivalist "sheriff" of Tent City; Jackie, the prostitute; and all the other couples and individuals who make up Shaun's group called The Dirty Thirty.

It doesn't take long before Shaun starts to lose himself. He openly describes his own experiences with drugs and alcohol, and of his thought processes around staying in a place like Tent City versus living in regular society. He brings to light some of the real reasons for homelessness, and why some homeless people would rather live in a place like Tent City instead of a homeless shelter or government housing. He writes candidly about the various "do-gooders" who frequently come around to Tent City to drop off food, clothes, heaters, and other items.

Shaun planned to stay in Tent City for one year, and he chose a good time to embed himself, as two major things happened. First, the crack sellers (who previously worked outside of Tent City) moved in, and . . . there goes the neighborhood. Second, Home Depot decided to reclaim their land. As Shaun's year is ending, Home Depot hires private security to come in and remove the squatters. Shaun's neighbors are all "relocated" to other homes in the city.

Down to This raises a lot of questions about how a "civilized society" treats its people. It raises questions about government policies and makes you think about social issues. It shows the human side of homelessness and living off the grid.

Ironically, as I was starting to write this review today, the TV was on and a documentary called Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa was playing on Sundance Channel. The documentary was so compelling that I had to stop writing to watch it. Although Off the Grid is more about the need to be self-sufficient in a Thoreau-like way, I found many parallels between it and Down to This.

Sure makes you think.