Ep 12: Humanizing the Homeless Through Photography

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Disrespected, dehumanized, misunderstood — these are the words that Leah den Bok wants you to see the next time you see someone experiencing homelessness. As a traveling photographer, Leah shines a light on their humanity and their struggles through her work.

Join Leah as she talks about how she started photographing the homeless, and what she learned in her journey.


Varun: We live in a world where every voice is unique. The Ascend Together Podcast taps into these voices and open dialogues that cover personal and professional journeys, the power of human potential, and emerging trends and ideas within our communities. I’m your host, Varun Chandrasekar, and today we’re going to be talking about a very important issue impacting our society. Homelessness.

Homelessness is one of the most pressing community issues challenging government at every level in Canada. At least 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness every year. 35,000 are homeless on a given night. Just about everything you thought you knew about homelessness is probably wrong. Most of us don’t know the ground realities because we really never stop to talk with people on the street to learn why they’re really there. Today we’re going to talk to someone who does not just that, but is changing how people around the world perceive homelessness.

For the past seven years, Leah den Bok has been traveling to cities around the world, like Toronto and New York, Washington DC, LA and Brisbane, photographing their homeless and recording their stories. Her work has gotten global attention. Leah has delivered speeches around the world. She was featured in CBC’s documentary, The National, and she’s won many awards including the Ascend Rising Star of the Year Award.

Welcome Leah, and thanks for joining us.

Leah: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Varun:  So to start off, could you tell us what got you into the field of photography, and particularly photographing the homeless?

Leah: So there’s sort of two specific reasons that I began to photograph people experiencing homelessness. And the first reason is, when I was 15 years old I was first photographing elderly citizens in nursing homes in the small town that I grew up in, and I was just looking for interesting subject matter and trying to build my portfolio. And then it just became too problematic because I had to get written permission from the children of the individuals, so my father and I were looking for another subject matter to practice portraiture on.

And then we stumbled across the work of Lee Jeffries, who’s a British photographer who photographs people experiencing homelessness in Great Britain. And I was very drawn to how he can capture someone’s personality through their gestures and their facial expressions and their wrinkles, so I really wanted to do the same. And my dad suggested that we go to Toronto and try photographing some people experiencing homelessness ourselves.

At first I was a bit taken aback by the idea. I was only 15 at the time. And growing up in a small town I was real naive to the reality of homelessness, and I’d only ever been told negative things so I wasn’t sure. But my dad talked me into it. And it was really that first experience taking photos of people experiencing homelessness that changed my father and I’s perspective. We began to see that none of those stereotypes, or most, weren’t true, and in fact these are some of the nicest and most kind and humble people and that we’ve ever met. But also that we began to realize how big of a problem homelessness was. And we decided to take it on as a project.

But another inspiration was the fact that my mother Sarah was homeless at the age of three. She was found wandering the streets of Calcutta, India, and found by a police officer. And because she had several wounds to the head the police officer brought her to Mother Teresa’s orphanage, Nirmala Shishu Bhavan, where she was raised until the age of five, when she was adopted to Canada. So definitely knowing if Mother Teresa didn’t do the work she did for people experiencing homelessness I wouldn’t be alive, but also that my mother was homeless I think has had an impact on me doing the project but it’s more on a subconscious level.

Varun: Wow. Thank you for sharing that. So Leah, your style of photography is black and white portrait. Could you tell us a little bit more about that as well as your books?

Leah: Yeah. So I do my photographs in black and white, and I do this for a specific reason because I’m trying to eliminate any distractions. So that’s also why I use a black or a white backdrop. I’m trying to eliminate the background. I really want to force the viewer to really focus on the individual, look into their eyes, and not be distracted by a bright color or something in the photographs. So that attributes to the style of black and white photography.

And more about my books would be, my project is really evolved around my books. I’m working on a book series called Nowhere to Call Home: Photographs and Stories of People Experiencing Homelessness. Right now there’s Volumes OneTwo and Three. Volume Four will be coming out this year. Each volume is 40 stories and 40 photographs of people experiencing homelessness. And the book has the goals of humanizing people who are experiencing homelessness and shining a spotlight on the problem with homelessness. As well, a hundred percent of the profits from the books go back to different homeless shelters that are helping people experiencing homelessness.

And I’m continuing to put out volumes. So Volume Four coming up this year is going to be a COVID edition, coming out around October. And then more editions after that hopefully as well.

Varun: That’s incredible. Thank you for sharing that. How did it feel the first time when you went out and started your project? Were you scared to approach people? Did you fear for your safety? Were you worried they’d refuse?

Leah: I think I definitely had all those fears. I was only 15 and I’m from a small town, it was my first time talking to someone who was experiencing homelessness. And I’ve ever been told only negative things that I always was just kind of, I guess, anticipating the worst, because that’s all I’d ever been told. But that’s why I think it’s really important to read these stories and to realize that nobody who’s experiencing homelessness is there by choice. The leading cause of homelessness is in fact affordable housing. Although I was scared at first, those negative thoughts were broken when I realized these are the most kind and humble people I’ve ever met. And I think people experiencing homelessness in most cases are way nicer people than people that aren’t experiencing homelessness. Because they have had nothing. And it really brings out a beautiful personality.

I’ve just seen, just to give you a few examples, one time I was taking photos of someone who was experiencing homelessness and their friend walked up to us and said he was really hungry and he hadn’t been able to get any money that day panhandling. And this person gave the little bit of change that he had out of his pocket to his friend, so that his friend could have something to eat. Just gave him the little bit of change he had left because he knew his friend wasn’t able to eat and he could. And you’d never see that from someone who wasn’t experiencing homelessness. Giving all you have to your friend, because you know they need it or something like that.

I’ve also heard of people experiencing homelessness giving the shirt right off their back. Or people have even tried to give me a gift. Like, thank you so much for speaking to me, being so kind to me, let me give to you a ring or a bracelet or little possessions I have. They are just often the kindest people.

Varun: Wow. Those were some really great examples. You spoke about the stereotypes that this community faces. Could you take us through a few examples of stereotypes that you’ve seen homeless people encounter in your experience?

Leah: Well just in terms of when talking with people or just reading things online, it’s always that they chose to be in that situation, that they’re dangerous, that they’re all drug addicts, they’re dirty, they should be avoided, they’re bad people. But I think the biggest thing, the most incorrect stereotype, is that they chose to be there, when none of them chose to be there. I have a statistic that, when given the choice everybody would choose to have an affordable place to live. No one would turn their back and choose, no I’d rather sleep on the sidewalk, thank you. No one would say that. No one wants to be in that situation. It’s because they don’t have any support systems and they’ve fallen through the gaps of our society and we don’t have enough affordable housing. And I think all those things combined is attributing to the stereotypes.

Varun: Yeah. Those are just some really great points. I guess almost shows you how harmful and dehumanizing some of those stereotypes can be. Would it be fair to say that some of those biases is rooted in a lack of understanding among the general public of the various problems that the homeless community faces?

Leah: I think yeah. Not only a lack of understanding of what the community faces, but I think also a lack of understanding of the causes. Because it’s always thinking that they chose to be in that situation, when no one thinks there’s so many causes. And they’re so diverse. When we’re meeting people that are struggling with mental illness or loss of a loved one or sexual abuse or family dysfunction or even a tragedy or some sort of event like their house burning down. There’s so many causes. I think it’s not just an understanding of the problem, but choosing to sort of ignore the causes as well.

Varun: And in your travels and your experiences, it looks like it’s obviously a complex issue, have you come across solutions for this challenge that the community faces?

Leah: I have come across some solutions. The main one would be when I was taking photographs in Australia. There is a project there called the Micah Projects, where they have reduced homelessness by 50%. So it is clear that they are doing the right thing. And we were working with them in a small way and they explained to us their programming, and I came to see that it is, you have to really approach it that it’s a very diverse subject.

So they were choosing to go around, pick up people who were experiencing homelessness, put them in an affordable place to live, and then give them all the resources they would need. Such as addiction resources, mental health resources, family resources, a counselor, or resources to get a job. And then they would even give them a job. Stuff like that. Because it’s not so much as just putting them in a shelter or putting them in a place to live, it is a more complex issue. And a lot of these people will need some sort of counseling or some sort of help into re-adjusting back into society. So it’s clear it can be done.

There’s even a province in Canada where the Mayor chose to end homelessness. He just said look, if you’re homeless come to me, and he housed everybody that was homeless. So there’s proof that it can be done very easily. It just takes that willpower. And then the saddest part is, there’s been articles and studies that prove it’s way more expensive for society to have people on the streets. Because they’re in such poor health condition, struggling to survive, they’re constantly needing medical care, they’re constantly setting a fire to survive and burning their tents down and needing the fire department. We’re constantly needing so much money from society. And if we simply had them housed, it would actually be so much cheaper.

So it’s just that our government, I guess, hasn’t opened their eyes up to the fact it would actually be in our best interest to just care about these people and house them. So I think it’s really important as a society to be contacting the government, both nationally and internationally, and saying I think this is a problem and I’m noticing it and we need to build more affordable housing. And I think if enough of us do that, eventually something will be done. Hopefully sooner than later.

Varun: Yeah. Thank you for breaking that down. It’s a great segue to something I wanted to bring up. Recently we saw a gross display of state aggression at a couple of parks in Toronto. At Trinity Bellwoods and Lamport Stadium Park we saw the Toronto police come armed with assault rifles, pepper spray, mounted cavalry, and evicting people from their encampments, moving them into shelters.

But I did some research into these shelters and they didn’t exactly seem like a solution, like you pointed out. In fact, they didn’t even seem hospitable. There has been a 20% increase in violent incidents at city shelters in the last five years, deaths in those shelters have increased by 125% just this year, there’s overcrowding – resulting in a complete lack of any privacy. All of it during a global pandemic. It sounds like a total nightmare. Is this similar to what you’ve heard anecdotally when you’ve met with people from the community?

Leah: Yeah, most definitely. During the pandemic and even before, most of the time I hear negative things about people wanting to stay at shelters. When I say, where do you asleep at night? And they say, oh I just walk around, or I sleep just anywhere I can or something like that. I say, why don’t you sleep at a shelter? The response always seems to be, I wouldn’t want to because it’s not safe. I’ve tried that before and something happened. Or like this reason. And some of the reasons are really shocking. People have even told me that they’ve been sexually assaulted. One of the most shocking source I think was an individual told me that they had their clothes ripped right off their body as they were trying to sleep, staying in the homeless shelter.

And other people have said, if they’re struggling with addiction or recovering it’s been very difficult to be in that kind of environment, where people, some people, are trying to push that on you. Or there are people there that are mentally unwell. And there’s just so many things. Or if you’re concerned about COVID and they’re normally taking the right precautions because there has been outbreaks, it’s just a scary thought with that many people staying in a building all together.

So there’s a lot of variables that I don’t think people think about, and it’s completely understandable with those reasons given why you wouldn’t want to stay there. And so it’s really sad to see people giving that as a solution that they should just stay at a shelter, because most people don’t want to stay there. There just needs to be more money put into it so that that’s not even an option that people have to take, because that’s not safe anymore. Or that shelters turn into you have your own locked room and not like you just have beds on the floor and a big building where anybody can take anything. Or at least lockers or something definitely more safe

Varun: How did you feel when you saw the Toronto police evict people from those parks?

Leah: It definitely brought tears to my eyes, watching people experiencing homelessness in their homes and the police just came and aggressively removed everybody and didn’t care about their belongings, didn’t care about them. And to watch people from the community coming out and trying to stop the police and saying, please don’t do this; and standing in front of their tents saying that these are people’s homes, don’t destroy their homes. And the police didn’t seem to care. And I think people were just arrested and people were even hurt. And it’s just horrible to see. If these people are literally fending for their lives and this is the little they have left, and to treat them like this is unbearable. I just can’t believe it.

And unless it’s a situation where, we have a housing for you, let’s safely help you get there on your time limit, on your terms, where you feel safe. Not just one day they just show up, everyone’s out, you don’t want to leave and you’re arrested, and you’re charged for trying to protect your belongings, protect your home. So I think that that was just horrible to see, people experiencing homelessness being treated in that way or for people to think that it’s okay to evict people experiencing homelessness.

They already went through some sort of eviction, per se, just giving a scenario like their mother died, they had a mental breakdown, they got evicted. Now they’re living in the park trying to survive, and they get evicted from the park. And now in the alleyway they get sexually assaulted, because in the park they felt safe. So that’s just not fair. In the park they’re able to maybe keep each other safe and they have some sort of community and they can sleep on the grass, under the trees where it doesn’t rain on them. But then they’re told that they’re not allowed. Because it imposes on the city. Who doesn’t want to house them or build affordable housing for them. That was just horrible to see.

And I don’t think anybody understands the problem. Nobody actually went to talk to these people and say, what are you going through? Why are you here? What brought you to being homeless? What do you need? Why can’t you stay at a shelter? And in all the statistics I read and the research I’ve done about homelessness I’ve never seen someone actually interview a person experiencing homelessness. It is people making up things in an office somewhere who are privileged and they never actually speak to these people and ask them the truth. So I think that’s a shame.

Varun: Yeah. And I also can’t help but notice the racial undertones in policing behavior that we’re seeing. And when I think about many of the anti-vaccine, the anti-mask and anti-lockdown movements, and how they’ve been so peacefully handled by the police, and we know how many of these movements at their core have been white supremacist movements. And then you contrast that with how homeless people are treated. And many of us might not know that 30% of the homeless community is Indigenous and female. So when you compare the two, you start to see how racism also starts to impact how police treat different communities.

Leah: Yeah. I definitely would. I definitely see that. And I have seen a large population of people experiencing homelessness who are Indigenous, who would fit that statistic of 30%. So it’s just I think there’s no question about it when you see people of color on the street and you see statistics like that. And we just know statistically that people of color are treated worse and are always discriminated against, so when we see these larger numbers on the street it’s just really sad. And especially Indigenous people who were the people that had this land first, and now we’ve destroyed their lives with residential schools and now they’re living homeless, dying on our streets. And that’s the way we treated them. I think if we’re going to fix what we’ve done to Indigenous people, I think a big start would be fixing homelessness and addressing the Indigenous homeless problem as well.

Varun: Now those are some powerful points. I mean, this seems like very difficult work to be doing. What keeps you going, Leah?

Leah: So I definitely think what keeps me going is just knowing that my work is accomplishing those goals of humanizing people experiencing homelessness and shining a spotlight on the problem of homelessness. Because I have been getting messages from people around the world saying that they could no longer walk by someone who’s experiencing homelessness and think negative things. And they’ll always wonder their story and make eye contact and speak to them. And that people even want to help people experiencing homelessness after seeing my work. So just seeing that it has had such a positive impact, and that it changes the perspectives in some way of almost every person who sees it, has just kept me going. Just hearing that positive feedback. And I didn’t know that was going to come, but I’m so happy that it’s accomplishing those goals on top of raising money for the homeless.

Well I can continue to do it. That’s definitely what keeps me going even though it is very hard, of course, to hear some of these conversations. Because people are telling us, since they’re ignored so much, people are opening their hearts up to us about the horrific things that they’ve lived through that you wouldn’t imagine. And it is hard to hear that sometimes. Especially when they’re such wonderful people and it’s hard to have to leave them on the street barely surviving. And when I go back to my house, what keeps me going is just knowing that positive impact.

Varun: I want to shift the conversation to focus on what we can do. Because it is an overwhelming issue. How can people help in their own lives?

Leah: So the first is, treat people experiencing homelessness with dignity and respect. If you simply walk by them, make eye contact, stop and speak to them; because most people ignore them and treat them in a less than human way. This is so important and you’d be shocked how much it would really matter and they changed this person’s life. Because people experiencing homelessness, some homeless have told me, they’re usually just ignored.

The second reason is to give to organizations that support people that support this population, because they have the know-how and the resources to best help these people.

And lastly, it’s pressuring the government to build cheaper and a more affordable housing, seeing as that’s the leading cause of homelessness is the fact that there’s not enough affordable housing. So simply contacting the government, nationally and provincially, could really make a big impact.

Varun: Amazing. Leah, I want to thank you for everything you’ve shared today and for shedding a light on this important topic and just doing the great work that you’re doing. Thank you so much for coming on our episode today and sharing your insight into this complex and diverse issue.

Thanks for listening to today’s episode. Make sure you follow us on LinkedIn at Ascend Canada to join and engage with our community. If you liked our episode today, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts.

Thanks again for tuning in and have a great day.

This transcript is auto-generated. Please excuse any errors.