An insider chronicles life in Tent City
Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall Random House, 475 pages, $34.95.

For all the worrying and raging about Tent City we heard a couple of years ago from anti-poverty activists and politicians and reporters and pundits, we’ve heard almost nothing at all from the residents themselves: the homeless and presumably hopeless crowd of indigents who carved out a village of shacks made of garbage on a vacant, toxic dump near the waterfront.

Who the hell were these people? If you were speaking to a member of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, the Tent City residents were victims, beaten by a society obsessed with winners and losers and too greedy to provide affordable housing. If you were reading a Toronto Sun columnist, they were the running dogs of anarchy, a gang of lazy and violent addicts, leeching off and stealing from the corporate and private citizenry.

Now — nearly two years after a private security force (escorted by police) evicted the 130 residents of Tent City, put razor wire around the site and, eventually, paved the entire place — we have Down to This, an account of the life and people of Tent City written by a former resident with the unlikely sounding name of Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall.

Bishop-Stall, who reads at the Hart House Library May 19, lived in Tent City from December, 2001 until the site was cleared in September, 2002. During that time he was savagely beaten, he built and renovated a small house for himself, panhandled, spent days on end drunk, took drugs, rode along on thieving runs and stood in soup kitchen lines. Which is to say he lived like a typical resident of Tent City. Which is not to say he was typical.

Raised by loving and supportive parents, Bishop-Stall is well-educated and had achieved a measure of success as a writer. At any time, he might have been a few phone calls away from pulling himself out of the squalor and poverty in which his fellow residents existed. He went to write a book, and dutifully kept a diary in spiral-bound notebooks that eventually formed Down to This. “I’ve been getting a lot of grief for that,” the 29-year-old author says over the phone from his hotel in Vancouver, a recent stop on a promotional tour for the book, “from people who haven’t read the book. Their automatic response was that I went in and studied them like Jane Goodall.” That was certainly the tone of “A tourist in Shantytown,” a lukewarm review by NOW-affiliated poverty activist Pat Capponi in The Globe and Mail on May 8.

But he wasn’t exactly wearing a pith helmet and carrying a microscope: he’d had a book project fall through on him, a relationship end in emotional carnage and he was battling a cocaine problem. “As everything was falling down around me, suddenly the idea of going to live in a tent for a year — which is how I pictured it — didn’t seem so bad…. But that’s not the kind of book I would have chosen to do if I’d had a lot to lose at that point.”

He says that his intention was neither to provide an anthropological study nor to pass himself off as a genuine example of homelessness, but to provide a window onto the life of a population that is often invisible to mainstream society. “If I had one kind of cultural purpose in writing this book, it was to kind of bridge the gap between people on the street and people who have homes. People don’t understand that there’s as great a spectrum of people who live on the street as those who don’t, that those 30 are as different as 30 of your friends.”

He’s talking about the “dirty 30,” the residents of Tent City who were established and survived the winter before the population quadrupled in the summer of 2002. And by the end of the book, you feel as though the dirty 30 are your friends.

The array of carefully drawn and fully rounded portrayals of the spectrum of Tent City residents are the stinking, breathing, laughing, fighting heart of Down to This.

It’s easy to break the characters down to two-dimensional thumbnails: Hawk, the hulking son of a Mafia family and self-proclaimed sheriff; Calvin, the jig-dancing Cough-X drinker who calls Bishop-Stall his little brother; Karen and Eddie, the crack-addict parents-to-be who’ll risk anything and everything to stand up for their friends; The Brothers, a pair of knucklehead moonshiners looking to fight. And that’s just a start.

But the reality-show stereotypes don’t fit. We experience the ups and downs of these people’s lives thoroughly through Bishop-Stall’s eyes, and unvarnished and often offensive as they are — most of them spend their entire welfare cheque on booze, they are casually racist and homophobic — we come to like them. As the author did, to his surprise.

“I was surprised, not only by the extent to which I made friends, but by how brave these people were,” he says. “There’s people I’ve known my whole life and I’ve loved my whole life who wouldn’t take a two-by-four on the side for me [as Karen did while he was being beaten on Christmas Eve]. And this is a woman who’d known me for two weeks and was pregnant. That kind of intense bravery and generosity and kindness — it’s impossible to see it any other way. That’s what it is. And you don’t find that in a lot of places, people who are willing to put themselves on the line for someone they barely know. They’re also willing to beat the hell out of somebody they don’t even know for no reason, but they kind of go hand-in-hand.”

He explains the character of the residents — who make quick black and white judgements — as endemic to the lifestyle. “You suddenly start to understand the ideas of good and evil, which, in this relativist society, is something that you’re supposed to scorn. But it’s real, because you’re dealing with decisions that, if you make the wrong one, it’s catastrophic. And if you don’t stand up for somebody, then they’re going to get pummelled. So it’s just that high frequency where the switches between ecstasy and absolute despair are enormously fast and everybody’s going through them at the same time.” Including, thanks to Bishop-Stall’s poetic and heartbreaking book, the reader.

Originally published in Eye Weekly May 13, 2004.