We talk a lot about "the homeless" and "homelessness" here in Thompson, usually as an abstraction in the sense of a "problem" to be dealt with.
Specifically, we talk from time to time about the Nanatowiho Wikamik Homeless Shelter, also known as the Thompson Homeless Shelter, at 115 Churchill Dr., if there's a funding crisis that's going to impact on its hours of operations, or number of beds, especially when the weather is cold or about to turn cold.
The people usually missing, however, from discussions of homelessness in Thompson are the homeless themselves. While many presume to speak on their behalf, where are their voices?
Refreshingly present for a change last week, we can attest. Thanks to Marleny Munoz, an assistant professor in the Northern Social Work Program at the University of Manitoba, and three of her second-year students, Janey Dykes, Ainslee McLaughlin and Emmanuelle Proulx, and assisted by program director and associate professor Colin Bonnycastle, Lisa Currier, a family enhancement worker with the Wecihitowin Project, a joint project of the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation and Awasis Agency of Northern Manitoba to deliver culturally relevant programming for clients living in Thompson, and Cynthia Latham, an aboriginal liaison worker with the Burntwood Regional Health Authority, the homeless in Thompson May 23 spoke in a "photovoice" exhibit in the lobby of City Hall entitled Homeless not Hopeless: Photographs and Stories from the Street.
Fifty people signed at the exhibit and 16 participants attended the workshop that followed, including Churchill riding NDP MP Niki Ashton.
Photovoice, says Munoz, is "an approach of community-based participatory research that has been used to empower marginalized community members to work together" to identify, represent and enhance their community through photographic technique.
The concept was developed by Caroline Wang from the University of Michigan and Mary Ann Burris, a program officer for women's health at the Ford Foundation, in Beijing in 1992, while Anna Blackman and Tiffany Fairey from Edinburgh University established projects in Vietnam and Nepal in 1998.
Munoz, who was earlier involved in community-based participatory research with the faculty of social work at the University of Calgary, also presented a related paper, Photographs Generate Knowledge: Northern Manitoba Homelessness Research Project with Bonnycastle in The Pas earlier this month at University College of the North's Gateways North: Expansion, Convergence and Change Northern Manitoba Centennial Symposium.
Mayor Tim Johnston ran into Bonnycastle in The Pas and suggested the City Hall lobby venue for the exhibit. "Homelessness is a community issue and the city needs to play leadership role and demonstrate same; no better place to do so then providing City Hall as venue. I was pleased my colleagues on the legislative and inter-governmental affairs committee of council agreed and supported the suggestion of City Hall," Johnston said in a May 24 e-mail.
Two dozen homeless participants showed up April 3 at the BRHA Resource Centre in Thompson Plaza to check out the project. Half stuck around to go outside and take pictures, Munoz said – pictures of their lives and their day-to-day reality. These are not pretty landscape picture or attached notes. Rather they are the true stories of those on the margins.
One homeless person photographed an old garage behind St. John's United Church, labelled as "Participant A's hotel." They explained. "One night I tried to crawl in the hole, but my big belly got stuck. There was someone in there and he pushed me in the head with his foot."
Another said, "Chip-in Corner: 11 a.m. the liquor store opens. Everyone meets at chip-in corner. One person goes and gets the liquor."
Sound like life on easy street, just hanging around waiting for the liquor store to open? Consider this then when participants talked also about what they had to do to survive homelessness in Thompson:
- To survive you walk around, stay in the light and keep to yourself;
- Stand in front of the movie theatre because it's sheltered from the wind;
- Public Safety Building basement holding cells of the RCMP detachment at 122 Selkirk Ave. (Participant A's "second" hotel.) "You don't have to pay when you stay there."
Former U.S. president Bill Clinton got it right in his first inaugural address Jan. 20, 1993 when he said, "… we recognize a simple but powerful truth – we need each other. And we must care for one another." He went on to say, we are "tempered by the knowledge that, but for fate, we – the fortunate and the unfortunate – might have been each other."
Or as one of the students said, "The most touching part for me during this whole process happened when we came back inside and it was time to eat. Jack (Cree elder Jack Robinson) was getting ready to start the prayer; one of our participants said, 'this is what we do' and reached out for our hands. There we all stood three students and three participants holding hands in a circle listening to Jack give thanks to the creator. I felt so fortunate that I had met these three men today and was able to share this experience with them."
Added Munoz: "I am sure that we, as community members, could change the face of the homelessness in Thompson."