<Passion Projects Introduction>
Let me tell you a story about this one time I made a scene at a grocery store. I find myself listening in on conversations by accident all the time, and usually it’s no big deal. I’ve heard grocery lists, scolding mothers, and even the occasional awkward flirting. But this one time, I was at the store waiting in line to check out, minding my own business, and I hear the word “nauseating”.
The lady in front of me wasn’t exactly being quiet, so in my defence I don’t think I could have tuned her out if I tried. So I listened, and the more I listened, the more I leaned in. I heard words like “lazy, dirty, deserving”, along with every curse word in the book. I wanted to know what the hell these people could be talking about.
Finally I clued in and I remember how my jaw dropped. I started crying and glaring at this woman and her friend; I was so frustrated and angry. I ended up feeling pretty gutsy, so I called the lady out on it, which was a bold move on my part, but I couldn’t let her say such disgusting things in front of me. Basically she yelled at me, called me the b-word, and stormed off with her groceries- no shock there. The people around me told me they agreed with me, but I was still shaking with anger.
<Music Fade In>
I didn’t know how people could be so cruel and mean. The way this lady was talking, with such pure hatred and disgust, you’d think she was talking about a well-known serial killer or something. But she wasn’t. She was talking about… homeless people.
[Separate Interview recording]
Mina: How do you think that we as a society can destigmatize homelessness?
Matte: Right, um… my approach is just to show people that they’re no different from us. And the only thing that may have been different is a circumstance that most of us don’t have control over. Some of the main reasons people become homeless are because of social, emotional, and physical abuse, so in most cases they’re actually refugees.
[Return to original narration]
That’s Matte Black. He founded Heroes in Black, an amazing Toronto-based organization aimed at helping homeless and at-risk youth; I was lucky enough to chat with him over the phone to ask him a few questions. I stumbled upon his organization and it instantly made me think back to the lady at the grocery store, and it made me wonder why some people are so cruel towards the homeless. I decided I wanted to figure out what it means to be a homeless youth in Toronto, and to see if the homeless are truly as “deserving” of their fate as that woman believed they were.
<Music Fades out>
Let me begin by emphasizing how absolutely right Matte is when he says that some of the main reasons people become homeless, young people especially, is because they’re technically refugees. I found some statistics on the Covenant House website, and sure enough, it said that “abuse and neglect are the two major reasons why youth leave home. [In fact] Studies show 70 percent of homeless youth have suffered some form of physical, sexual or emotional abuse.” 70%, that’s an insanely high percentage.
Matte’s use of the word refugee caught my attention, because the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. So many young people leave their homes to turn to the streets because their home situations cause them to feel they have nowhere else to turn. In Toronto there’s “as many as 1,000 to 2,000 homeless youth on a given night” according to the Covenant House website, and that means a huge portion of those young people are on the streets because of circumstances out of their control. Knowing that I’m sleeping in a warm bed while there’s people my own age, in my own city without a roof over their head, or even a hot meal- it’s beyond disturbing and it made me more inspired to keep researching. But something even more horrifying, as mentioned on the Heroes in Black website, is the fact that after two years of living on the streets- someone is 90% more likely to accept living like that for the rest of their life.
This statistic is shocking, but it’s a key piece of information. If young homeless people are 90% more likely to accept being homeless for the rest of their lives after living on the streets for two years, someone needs to intervene and break the cycle, someone needs to help these people before the two year mark, and if not that, help those who have passed the two year mark to regain hope. That someone, I discovered, is Matte Black.
Matte himself experienced life as a homeless youth. He was 15 when he moved to the streets- and that’s actually the average age that young people become homeless (http://www.covenanthousetoronto.ca/homeless-youth/Facts-and-Stats). Imagine yourself at the age of 15; now disregard this if I’m wrong, but you probably had a house, or apartment, or some sort of roof over your head. Maybe you lived with your parents, or with some form of relative or family members. You probably didn’t worry about when your next meal was going to be, or where you were going to shower.
I watched a video on the Heroes in Black Youtube channel and it literally brought me to tears when Matte explained how he lived in and out of shelters for almost nine years. He endured nine years of sleeping in stranger’s cars in their driveways, using the laundromat to wash his hair and face. In an interview with Global News Toronto, he discussed the pain he felt, and loss of hope that drove him to consider suicide.
For obvious reasons, I didn’t talk to Matte about that when I interviewed him. Instead I decided to do a bit of research, and I read a fascinating article that I’ll link in the transcript. http://www.utpjournals.press/doi/pdf/10.3138/cjccj.46.4.423 I highly recommend the read if you want to learn more about the life of homeless youth. The information I read- it was haunting to say the least.
It talked about how homeless youth are far more likely to experience mental illnesses, anxiety and depression being the most common. But you wouldn’t believe the emotional, psychological, and physical challenges that the article described. They face rejection, abuse, hunger, mental illness, suicidal thoughts, and so many other horrors. Ultimately this leads to a loss of hope. A loss of hope that often leads to them believing they’re stuck with the lives they have.
I decided to look into a few specific cases of youth homelessness in Toronto, to gain some more perspective. There was typically one common connection between all of them: they all suffered from a form of abuse, or just lived in really difficult situations that led to them either being kicked out, or runaway due to lack of another choice. One case in particular stuck with me; this 19 year old named Robbie McLeod left home at 15 when his mom literally stopped feeding him. His school tried to intervene by placing him in the shelter, but in one way or another, to no shock to me, the system failed him and he turned to the streets of Toronto. Now he sleeps on vents, or wherever he can find; he avoids shelters because he claims things get stolen there. Robbie also says he has a form of Asperger’s syndrome, and on top of that he suffers from anxiety and depression.
When asked what he wants the public to know about homeless people, Robbie said: Quote “I guess some people don’t really like when you sleep on the street. People actually resent us for that. And it’s like, it’s either that or we freeze. Most people just ignore you. That’s pretty much it. I’ve gotten used to it.” End quote. The truth behind this quote is heartbreaking. If you’ve ever walked the streets of Toronto, you’ve probably seen the way people avoid the homeless; you also may have heard people complain that the homeless are taking us space, and that they shouldn’t be there. Here you have a young person forced into the street due to circumstances beyond their control, only to be subjected to the harsh life of a homeless person, and most likely judged and ridiculed by strangers. For so many young people in Toronto, this is the horrifying reality.
In the Global News Toronto interview I mentioned earlier, Matte explained how he was able to rebuild his life to get to where he is today. Adrian “JB” Homer, the owner of GCP Recording Corp, discovered Matte singing in a bar one day, and decided to put his hope in him for his musical talents. Two years later Matte had taken his life back, and created Heroes in Black to help those in the same position he had been in. People in situations similar to Robbie. What I find incredibly inspiring and interesting is the approach that Heroes in Black takes- while they do focus heavily on giving people food, and the necessities that they need to live, they also give young people something that is necessary to break that 2 year cycle of dread. They give hope.
One of the interesting approaches they take, is to focus on helping individuals to achieve their dreams, and regain the hope that they may have lost. Their motto “rebuild, inspire, and employ” says wonders about the organization; they’ve done a variety of amazing things, such as their monthly “Haircut Heroes” event in which a group of volunteers provide haircuts to help people on the streets to prepare for job interviews, or simply boost confidence and morale. They also have this awesome summer event called “Hero Camp”, in which they bring dozens of homeless youth away for a weekend out of the city to allow them to experience nature and just get away from the struggles they face daily.
[Separate Interview Recording]
Matte: The most rewarding aspect… is seeing people…who don’t normally get a moment of peace, find peace.
[Return to Original Narration]
With events like this, Heroes in Black hopes to inspire and give hope to individuals. So many organizations that aim to help the homeless have wonderful intentions, but forget to focus on the individual people. Something I realized when doing my research, is that people often forget to realize that the homeless are in fact individuals. They feel pain, they love, they have good days and bad days. I find that people have a really bad habit of dehumanizing the homeless by looking at them as a statistic rather than as human beings.
I think that’s a huge reason behind why some people are so cruel towards the homeless. To them, they’re a statistic. They’re a number without a face. Maybe that’s why the lady at the grocery store was able to talk about the homeless with so much rage and hatred; maybe it didn’t occur to her that they’re human beings just like her- human beings who may be in the situation they are in due to circumstances out of their control. She was probably unaware that so many homeless people, homeless youth especially, are homeless for reasons that aren’t their fault.
There’s this stigma surrounding homeless youth; and a lot of people assume they’re homeless due to being delinquents, but in fact, that simply isn’t the case. There was actually a ground breaking international study done by a researcher at the University of Toronto that shows that delinquency is not the main cause of youth homelessness. It’s actually poverty. PAUSE So my question now, is… how as a society can we collectively end the stigma behind homelessness?
<Music Fades in>
Honestly, I think Matte is on to something. His approach isn’t necessarily traditional, it’s new, and it focuses on helping individuals. And that is what makes it full of so many possibilities. It’s one thing to give a homeless person food- it’s another thing to give them food, and on top of that have a conversation with them. Talk to them about life, inspire them, give them opportunities, give them hope. As a society, as a population, if we stopped walking past the homeless, if we stopped ignoring them, or judging them, or making assumptions about them- we could reverse the stigma and realize that they’re just people that need a hand. Plain and simple.
So to answer the question from earlier, “do homeless people deserve to be homeless?” Well I can already tell you, before working on this, my answer was no. And after doing all my research, it still is- I stand firmly behind that. But my intentions aren’t to persuade you of anything- I just want to inform people and give a voice to the voiceless. If you were to only gain one thing from everything I’ve said, I’d want it to be that homeless people are people just like you and me- the only difference, is that they need our help- they need hope.
<Music Fades Out>
A big shout out to Matte Black for allowing me to interview him, as well as the rest of the people at Heroes in Black for everything they do. I also want to point out that Heroes in Black is doing an amazing “Holiday Heroes” event, where volunteers buy and handout gifts personally to mothers, kids, and even grandparents in need! So if you want to check out their website for more details, I’ll link it in the transcript. But it sounds like an awesome event, and if you’re feeling generous, you can volunteer or donate stuff to help brighten the holidays for those in need.
[Separate Interview Recording]
Mina: What’s the most inspiring thing that you’ve experienced when working with your organization? Like a specific experience maybe.
Matte: Oh man.
Mina: I know there’s probably tons (laughs).
Matte: What isn’t inspiring (laughs) I think, one of the biggest moments I’ve had was our last Christmas event when we went out and gave brand new wrapped gifts to people in the streets and family shelters. And there were so many babies opening gifts and grandparents opening gifts. All those different things definitely touched home for me.
<Music Fades in>
[Separate Interview Recording]
Mina: If you could go back and time and talk to 15 year old Matte, what would you say to him?
Matte: I would say… everything is going to be okay.
<Music Fades out>
[Return to Original Narration]
Thanks so much for listening, and stay passionate.
<From scratch Media Outro [scratching sound effect]>
"Facts and Stats | Canada’s Largest Youth Shelter." Covenant House. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2016. http://www.covenanthousetoronto.ca/homeless-youth/Facts-and-Stats
Gaetz, Stephen. “Safe Streets for Whom? Homeless Youth, Social Exclusion ...” University of Toronto Press, July 2004, http://www.utpjournals.press/doi/abs/10.3138/cjccj.46.4.423.
"Heroes In Black Origin Story (Trailer)." Youtube. Heroesinblack, 15 Oct. 2015. Web. 8 Dec. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJtSsHQCCrw
"HEROES IN BLACK." Heroes in Black. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.
"Minimalism." Free Music Archive: Minimalism. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2016. http://freemusicarchive.org/genre/Minimalism_1456/#
Monsebraaten, Laurie. "Poverty the Leading Cause of Youth Homelessness: Study ..." The Star. N.p., 4 Apr. 2016. Web. 24 Oct. 2016. https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2016/04/04/poverty-the-leading-cause-of-youth-homelessness-study.html
Spurr, Ben. "Five Homeless Youth Share Their Stories." The Star. N.p., 19 Oct. 2015. Web.
Vuchnich, Allison. "Everyday Hero: How Musician Matte Black Went from Homeless to ‘Heroes’." Global News. N.p., 15 Apr. 2016. Web.v http://globalnews.ca/news/2642433/everyday-hero-how-musician-matte-black-went-from-homeless-to-heroes/