This post is the latest in a series of articles from guest bloggers. Each week experts and activists in fields of homelessness and mental health explore some of the issues raised by a Here At Home film.

From NFB interactive, Here At Home is a cutting-edge documentary experience that offers a look inside At Home, a radical experiment to end chronic homelessness. Led by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the experiment is the largest of its kind in the world. The theory it’s testing: there’s a way to end homelessness for people with mental illness and it starts with giving them homes.

For today’s post we matched the Toronto film, “Find My Way” with Eric Weissman, an ethnographic filmmaker whose recent book, Dignity in Exile, stories of struggle and hope from a modern American Shantytown, (Exile, 2012) recounts time spent in North America’s only legal shantytown, Dignity Village, Oregon.  His documentary film series, Subtext-real stories was featured as part of the Housepaint Phase II exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum (2008).

In the summer of 2001, I was gathering video interviews with homeless folks on the streets of Toronto. That’s when I met Butch who had been in and out of jails and on the streets for several years. He had told me that the streets were not the same anymore; in 2001, there were a lot of “sick people,” people who needed psychiatric help but who had been all but deserted by the retraction of social and health services for the poor. Butch took me to the 24 acre plot of land at the foot of Cherry Street and Lakeshore Blvd. It was there that he and a handful of street people were building shacks in which to live. That they were building structures from waste materials and scrap, devising ways to heat their structures, living without plumbing, and more or less managing to keep up their crude homes was astonishing. Tent City as it came to be known, housed 115 people by the summer of 2002.  But the bad press that Tent City received focused on drugs, misreported children being born there, and painted the residents as undeserving criminals, a stroke of indifference that still colours conventional attitudes towards the street poor.  Tent City was hastily evicted and the grounds swept clean of any evidence of their existence in the Autumn of 2002.

Amidst the popular outcry against the evictions, the ex-residents of Tent City were later placed in rental supplemented housing units, commensurate with prior Housing First models that had been in place in several American cities since the 1990s.  I had filmed the rise and fall of the shantytown as others had done, but I kept on filming and doing interviews with ex-residents as they navigated the often-trying adaptation to conventional housing.  To date, I continue to interview with a few of the residents each year, just to keep in touch.  One of the most remarkable observations we had made over the years was the awareness that just keeping an apartment, that is keeping it clean, fridge full, and floors clean, as examples, sounds easier to accomplish than it really was, especially for people who had long histories of mental health issues, drug addiction, incarceration and emotional traumas incurred simply by living on the streets.

Recently, I have been working with Chez Soi participants in Montreal.  We have been developing a video resource for other members of the Chez Soi community to access, a sort of Chez Soi tools kit.  In the interviews, participants speak of the challenges of living in mainstream communities; the skills they require to manage money, take care of medical issues and to find work or school.  Most importantly, they speak to the camera and to us in such a way that others who might be struggling to adjust to housing can learn from their experience. In this light, they appear as capable, enthusiastic, discerning, if not, extremely grateful for their housing, and of course for the supports that the program brings them.  It is rare, in the mainstream press or in the literature, to understand the homeless, especially those with mental illness, as capable and deserving neighbours. But they are.  Sometimes, students and colleagues ask me whether I cut the video to produce an overly positive image of the resident because I might be in favour of the program.  There remains, often, a pre-logical conviction in the minds of conventionally housed people that the homeless are likely to fail at “normal” things.  So why does our work here with Chez Soi overwhelmingly show people successful at reclaiming conventional lives?

Byron’s self-filmed video stands out to me as an important statement about the importance of stable housing in the personal reinvention of psychiatric survivors that the general public finds difficult to understand.  That the footage is raw and “unaltered” is partly its strength, for we are afforded a chance to see what Byron’s world means to him, through his lens, and I might add, in an honest and sometimes personal framing.  There are moments when I want to turn away, when he hears his name called to him by forces unseen, or as he looks out the window at what we cannot see, but towards something that disturbs him – I want to ignore the fact that his reinvention runs precariously alongside the treatment of his disorder.  But, then I see his energy, his goal-setting strategies and his gratitude, and I have to ask myself, as I would ask any one who sees Byron, “Is there more we can ask from anyone?”  I am doubtful that many people, comfortably ensconced in their own homes would be willing to take videos of themselves for others to see, especially if the footage slots them into a category that is so often misunderstood as undeserving, or different, or other. Byron is brave. He is grateful, even patriotic.

The video that Byron made is free of the weight of aesthetic dogma and it comes to us as a raw and uncluttered invitation to understand better the capabilities of people who make a daily effort to overcome psychiatric challenges when they are afforded stable housing and supports. As an instructor at a major university, I would welcome Byron in my class anytime.  That is of course, if an education is as he says, “what’s calling me.” 11 years after they received housing, Brian, Terry, Penny and many others I know from Tent City have kept their housing and moved on to establish ties within their communities.  There was a lot of doubt surrounding that likelihood.  In the three years that At Home/Chez Soi has been helping people like Byron, it has already established that stable housing with supports is a start on the path to recovering lost lives for members of that important community.