I’d always been curious what paths can take a man to the streets, so one day I decided I would go and try to find out. Armed with my camera, I approach the homeless men and women in the streets of Montreal, and with a simple but genuine smile, I ask them the questions I’ve always wanted to ask.
Rarely have I been turned down. More than a dollar, what these people crave for is a bit of consideration by the rest of the world. And while I was hearing about the – often tragic – journeys of these men and women, I was surprised to find in them some of the most humanist and generous people I’d ever met.
Some say they end up where they are because they are weak, unable to deal with their emotions; well I’ve come to believe that thinking this is basically mistaking having a good heart for weakness. It is my pleasure to introduce you to David, Gilles, Alain, Esther, Gaetan and Jean-Robert.
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David and Diamond
“I wanted to give back a little bit of being clean from the drug, so I started doing some volunteer work to help some of the younger heroin addicts. I got to know a couple of the police officers downtown, and what happened is they arrested some heroin dealers. They stopped them in a station wagon car, and when they searched the car they found her [the dog] in a cardboard box, wrapped in a towel. She hadn’t eaten for probably three or four days, she was two months old and she was just skin and bones.
When they arrested them I was standing there watching, and I saw them taking her out of the car. They said “We’re going to take her to the SPCA and have her put to sleep.” I said “No, let me take her and see if I can make her better again.” So I took her right to the vet, and the vet said it wasn’t worth it. I said “I don’t care, do it”. I had an apartment then, and $3000 saved up, and it cost $1800 to get her healthy. She stayed at the hospital for three weeks, I went to see her every day, and when she came out she was well and happy. Four months later she got sick and they found two tumors in her ovaries so they operated her. That cost me $2200. Then when she was six and half, she got sick again, they found two more tumors, and charged me $2800. Well that took my apartment and all my furniture, which I had to sell. That’s shy I’m on the street, because I couldn’t afford to pay for the apartment and her treatment”.
“I was raped at the age of 12 with a 303 under my chin. I could go to court and report the guy, but he asked for forgiveness the next day. After that I slept with men, I slept with women, I prostituted myself, it got serious. It fucked me for life, I swear. At 27 I became schizophrenic. Instead of helping me my family wanted to send me to foster care. In order not to go, I married a woman I didn’t love and stayed with her for 20 years. On Christmas Eve I found her in my bed with her best friend, doing coke. I took my stuff and got the hell out. I ended up in the street for 3 years. But I’m doing better, and I’m proud! I managed to get through, I’m proud of myself.”
“I used to skate, do competitions, I was sponsored and all. At one point I felt I had two choices, and I made the wrong one. I kept on living in debauchery. I was really into punk rock and the skateboard world, it’s always a party, and I chose to follow this instead of the more serious side of me: I really love books, I read all the time, and I used to collect old books, old editions. But I followed some negative influences; I say negative influences, but it was really up to me to choose whether I followed them or not. Now I’ve been in the street for three years straight. I’ve spent two years without social welfare, and I just managed to get it back. So I’m gonna try to find myself a place for the winter, I don’t want to spend another winter outside.”
For a while, I ran into Gilles every Sunday afternoon. We chatted every time, and when it was time to say goodbye, I always got a hug. So one day I asked him:
“How many hugs do you give a day?”
“I can’t even count! I hug people because having positive feelings helps me. When people come see me spontaneously, it’s wonderful, that’s the magic!”
“I’ve had children with a woman from the far north. She was too kaput, too drunk. At some point I couldn’t take it anymore, she dumped me there. I ended up alone, no job – I used to be a contractor. She dumped be, and I found myself with my boy who was three, my daughter two, and a small baby. I toughed it out for three months, on my own. I couldn’t make it anymore, I was out of strength. It was too much work for one man alone, it was too hard for me, I did not have a choice, I called Youth Protection and had them adopted. And that broke my heart. I’ve been drinking ever since.”
“I got back in touch with my kids about six months ago. They’re 24-25. They looked for me, and to tell you the truth I’m quite happy, I made beautiful kids. I found myself a place to stay last month. Things keep getting better, I’m in the process of turning my life around. My next goal is to furnish my place. And to quit drinking.”
“When you end up in the street, with the cold, the lack of sleep, heroin is the first drug you risk falling into. In the winter when it’s really cold, it allows you to sleep without feeling the cold, the pain. And life on the street is really tough so in the first six months people usually fall into that addiction. For me it was really during my first winter, I had never lived on the street and the first winter was insane. The cold, the injuries, the frost bites, the lack of access to the healthcare system, etc. Now I’m on a methadone program, I only did six months of consumption. It’s really my doctor who made it possible for me to get out of this addiction quickly. Otherwise I would’ve probably fallen down a deep hole; being an addict becomes a full-time job.”
“I say hello to everyone, with a big smile. It surprises them, it takes them out of their shell. It only makes you feel good, a smile. I worked in a coffee shop for three years. Everyone who entered that coffee shop, I’m not lying now, left with a smile of their face.”
“I lost my job and my girlfriend on the same day. The company closed, and my girlfriend… we didn’t really break up, but she changed her phone number and her address at the same time the shop closed down. No more job, no more girlfriend, I fell a bit depressed, I started doing drugs and then… I thought I’d buy a house with my girlfriend. We got along well, we both had a job. We were making plans like this, maybe buying a house… But the shop closed down damn it.”
“Some people give me beautiful smiles. Beautiful smiles man, that’s worth a lot. I’ve never had those, smiles. I’ve never received any affection. My mother never touched me. A smile, that’s always nice. Someone who’s doing well, joyful, that’s always nice.”
“I helped a woman give birth. I met her, then we lost touch. And when we saw each other again, she was pregnant. We started seeing each other, and I didn’t mind the fact that she was pregnant. I went all the way to the labour room with her. I’ve never been married, as far as I know I don’t have any children, but I’ve helped a woman give birth.”
“I’ve worked for the Cirque du Soleil, I was doing maintenance. I could go in the artists’ changing rooms, and I’d clean the circus tent. Why do you think I’m wearing clown pants?”
“What’s the most difficult time you’ve been through in the street?”
“When I lost my dog… He was stolen from me. With him I was never alone. He was my best friend. I’ve got plenty of mates, but they’re not friends. He was a real one. I won’t cry…”
Fred & Mika
“She had my dog vaccinated, and tomorrow she’s taking her to get neutered.”
“What got you to help them?”
“First I saw that he’s not a junkie, and that he’s not a drunk. He’s young, his dog is his life, and it’s hard to find a place to stay in the winter with a dog. And it always comes from our families, from our parents: when we’re mistreated we pay the consequences, and when we’re spoiled… My mother was an orphan, she was a designer and she made a lot of money. There were orphanages at the time, and on every occasion, my mother would help. When she was asking her clients for stuff to donate, she’d say ‘Don’t give me rags, that’s what they have.’ So you know, it goes back a long way. Young, young, young, I learned that when you see a smile on a face, whether it’s a child’s or an adult’s, it stays with you.”
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