Downtrodden, derelict and forgotten
DOWN TO THIS:
A Year Living with the Homeless
by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall
(Brisbane: University of Queensland Press)
Paperback: 475 pages
Rec. price: $32.95
Attitudes towards the urban homeless in any city vary a great deal among its inhabitants.
For some, the homeless are an uncomfortable reality, more easily ignored than dealt with. For others, they represent society’s failure to care for its most vulnerable members. Still others see those on the street as deserving of their lot, victims of none other than their own vices. For most, it is an uneasy mix of these and other points of view.
Bridging the gap
Whatever one’s understanding of the problem of urban homelessness, there is inevitably a gap which limits analysis, a breach between the observer and the observed, between the housed and the homeless: between us and them. Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s colourful real-life account, Down To This: A Year Living With The Homeless, goes some way to bridging that gap.
Nursing a broken heart, a burgeoning drug addiction, and a general lack of direction in life, Bishop-Stall set out upon the romantic, if somewhat naïve quest of surviving one year in “Tent City”, a derelict plot of some 27 acres in downtown Toronto, Canada, and home to a volatile population of desperate squatters.
His aim: to document his time inside the gates of this anarchic urban dystopia. The result is at once harrowing and insightful, a confronting account of the daily struggle for survival in a world where hard drugs, violence and despair casually mingle with laughter, friendship and hope.
Bishop-Stall is a gifted writer. His prose is fluent, easy to read and hard to put down. His observations are carefully and emotionally rendered, and he engages the reader with a warts-and-all development of his characters — a hapless cast of vagrants, ex-convicts, prostitutes, drug-addicts and mentally-ill squatters who, for a period of 10 months, are also his neighbours.
Flawed as they may be, it is ultimately the virtue exhibited by these downtrodden and forgotten discards of an individualistic and materialistic society that impresses most emphatically upon the mind of the author, as he observes acts of loyalty, kindness, generosity and respect in the most unlikely of places.
These virtues catch Bishop-Stall completely off guard, as do some of the finer details of day-to-day living in Tent City. Inhabitants give small but thoughtful gifts to one another; they offer advice on life, relationships and architecture to new arrivals; they even share spices for cooking.
In all of this, the author is awakened to the overwhelming humanity of the people he has set out to observe, who reveal themselves to be far more than mere stereotypes. And this becomes the central message of Bishop-Stall’s story, challenging the reader to consider that, just like our own lives, the lives of the homeless are coloured with subtle human complexities.
Bishop-Stall shies away from any serious academic analysis of homelessness, preferring to simply document his own experiences.
Some critics have characterised the author’s adventure as being little more than a self-indulgent, reckless experiment, one which shows contempt for his own privileged upbringing, and which trivialises the dire physical and psychological conditions which are the daily scourge of the long-term homeless, for whom there is no safety net.
By contrast we feel that for Bishop-Stall, a return to the outside world, and to normalcy, is never really out of reach.
Of similar concern is Bishop-Stall’s own ambiguous moral compass. In spite of a vague overall understanding that the virtues of diligence, generosity, and above all, love, are vital to the attainment of real happiness, the author exhibits only limited concern for the daily indulgence by the citizens of Tent City (himself included) in drunkenness, extra-marital sex, and violence.
Certainly, he demonstrates an aversion to a host of obvious evils, such as petty theft from the vulnerable, and child-neglect. The devastating effects of hard-drug-addiction are made painfully clear, the author helplessly looking on as his friends spiral deeper into enslavement to crack-cocaine.
Still, Bishop-Stall offers no conscientious objection to the taking of drugs per se, and is permissive in his attitude to “softer” drugs such as alcohol and marijuana. Even at the end of his journey he seems somewhat oblivious to the subtle damage such activities inflict.
Nevertheless, Down To This offers rare and invaluable insight into the lives and minds of the long-term homeless. For any reader who has volunteered assistance to the homeless in some capacity, or who intends to do so in the future, Bishop-Stall’s account will undoubtedly reveal the experience in an entirely new light, and offer a renewed understanding of the unfortunate people who call the street their home.
It is interesting to note that throughout the book, the author depicts charity workers, both religious and secular, with the same air of scepticism prevalent among the inhabitants of Tent City.
While at first this judgement might seem harsh, Down To This exposes the immense gulf between our perceptions of the homeless and the reality of their plight. Most importantly, it goes a long way toward bridging that gulf.
— Tim Cannon is a former union organiser for the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA).