06/22/2012 11:51 EDT | Updated 08/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Writing Themselves to a Better Future: Writing Contests for the Homeless

About a ten years ago, the Canadian Jewish Humanitarian and Relief Committee, launched a creative writing contest for the homeless. The prize? $2000. Now, a decade later, word has gotten out that the odds of winning are high, and the homeless are coming in droves to pen their stories. Stories that will help them find a better life.


"I am flesh and blood. I'm not just an idea." - Winner, Creative Writing Contest

A creative writing contest for the homeless with a top prize of $2000. Really?

About a decade ago, Veahavta, the Canadian Jewish Humanitarian and Relief Committee, launched a contest for the homeless. It was a writing contest and anyone who lived on or near the street (jumping from bed to bed) could enter.

Veahavta's volunteer-led workshops in a dozen different shelters and drop-in centres are encouraging people to enter. And they did. In its first year, 20 people entered and were judged for their prose and poetry.

People thought it was unusual to offer such a contest to individuals who worry day-in and day-out about surviving. But the homeless found sense in the contest. Over the years, more and more men and women submitted and word got around that the odds of winning a prize -- about 10:1 -- were good.

The homeless understood that they have a voice and what they had to say about their lives. The abuse, the camaraderie on the street, the government agencies set up to help them, their relationships and a plethora of other insights, were worth writing and reading.

They recognized that Veahavta was serious about the contest, and proof was in their choices of judges which have included Tony Blair, Mia Farrow, Michael Ondaatje, Ron Maclean of Hockey Night in Canada, Pat Capponi, Steve Paikin and spiritual leader, Eli Rubenstein.

In 2005, Theresa Schrader, a prostitute and crack addict entered the contest. Theresa figured it was time to turn her life around after building a five page rap sheet and losing two children to children's aid. There was only one way her life could go, and that was up.

Theresa was homeless for 10 years, which gave her lots of time to think. She put pen to paper and began to write, and what flowed out of her was a story about a John who beat the hell out of her and left her for dead. Theresa wrote that her first thought after the thrashing was how she was going to score some crack, and how the cop who showed up at the scene exhibited great caring. She won $1000 at the time. She took the money and partied and then that was it. Theresa was done. Finished. Her days as a crack addict and sex-worker were over and her new life began.

Today, Theresa is in the employ of Veahavta. She is responsible for the creative writing contest for the homeless, and is the founder and administrator of Veahavta's Street Academy, a school for the homeless in partnership with George Brown College. Theresa is beautiful.

In 2012, the prizes, sponsored by corporations and families including Kernels Popcorn and Camp Manitou, were given out at the Parkdale Activity-Recreational Centre. Toronto Argonaut great, Pinball Clements showed up and encouraged the audience made up of homeless participants, philanthropists and volunteers, to recognize that "they are perfect just the way they are."

To encourage his point, Pinball said, "My little girl told her mom that she didn't want her feet to grow. Her mom asked her why over and over again until she finally got the answer out of our daughter. She replied, 'because daddy said he loves me just the way I am'".

"Through all my trials and tribulations, I embrace life with jubilation. Life is short as I know, but if I fall I'll take the blow. Be true to yourself. Do not take shit. Do not ever give up." - A Creative Writing Contest Participants

The Jewish people have been called the "People of the Book". Essentially this means we are a curious lot, intellectualize in abundance, read a lot and investigate the soulfulness of life. It made sense, therefore for Veahavta to establish a creative writing contest for the homeless to encourage those people living on or near the street to do the same, develop their minds and souls. The believe was that writing down one's thoughts and feelings might in of itself be a solution to homelessness. Theresa has proven that to be true.

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