04/27/2015 05:57 EDT | Updated 06/27/2015 05:59 EDT

We Wanted to Reframe the Way We See Homeless People, Using Music

Anthony Van Zant is a homeless musician we've been filming for a year for a documentary film called Lowdown Tracks. We recorded the songs and stories of homeless musicians, but the process of making this film lead to even deeper revelations about my own prejudices and fears.

Shelley Saywell

It's 7 a.m. on one of the coldest mornings in memory. We are standing across the street from the 378- bed Salvation Army Maxwell Meighen Centre. One by one they wander outside, like phantoms in the blowing snow; senior citizens, veterans, men with mental health issues, guys just down on their luck.

I'm jumping up and down to keep my toes from turning completely numb. We are waiting for Anthony Van Zant, a homeless musician we've been filming for a year. Drug addiction was his downfall and it almost did him in. As he shuffles towards us, I see that he is not dressed for the weather, and worry like I always do.

We start filming and I begin with a straightforward question. "What will the rest of the day will be for you?" Anthony is usually ready with an answer, off the cuff and often quite brilliant, but this time he is momentarily stumped. "I don't have anywhere to go." He finally says, pauses, then "There's no where to go, especially with no money. You tell me where to go? You can't imagine this unless you live it, because you have a whole list of things to do today. I no longer have that list," he shakes his head as if realizing this for the first time, "I no longer have that list."

It's one of those moments that hits me like a sledgehammer. Surrounded by construction cranes and steel and glass condos growing taller and taller, casting their long shadows over those on the curb, I realize this hard truth: you are either part of this society or you are completely shut out.

I was making a documentary film called Lowdown Tracks, recording the songs and stories of homeless musicians with Lorraine Segato (Parachute Club). We wanted to reframe the way we see homeless people and to do it through music.

We both had a history of activism around this issue. I'd made a film following Cathy Crowe a street nurse, stunned to learn that nurses like her were practicing third world medicine on the streets of our city. Everyone knew about the shortage of shelter beds, and heard that more facilities were closing. The churches in town ran most of the out of the cold programs, and the real estate they were sitting on was worth countless millions. If the churches sold their buildings and closed their programs, what then?

Our federal government was missing in action on this issue: despite the desperate need for a national housing strategy for affordable housing. Caseworkers were over-burdened, and there was never enough one-on-one support for people who had to navigate through the welfare system, or legal aid, or get mental health assessments. But the process of making this film lead to even deeper revelations about my own prejudices and fears.

When we started looking for our film subjects, we had a hard time defining "homelessness". We'd find someone in a rooming house (was that homeless?) then someone who had been on the street would find a place to stay. It was a fluid situation, but I came to understand it this way: homelessness is a condition, much like alcoholism, that consumes and becomes a state of being. It continues to exist as people navigate in and out of their immediate living situation, like a self-defined alcoholic who hasn't had a drink in years. Our social programs don't make it easy to climb out of this condition permanently, and our attitudes towards homelessness make it even more difficult.

Katt Budd, a former street kid told us that "once you've been on the street its so easy to go back again when things go wrong. You know that family is waiting for you, and that they won't judge you." All the judgments the rest of us make without really thinking, underscored her reality everyday.

Maryanne Epp, who'd been in 28 shelters in seven provinces, defined the condition this way, "no matter what cognitive thoughts you have when you see a homeless person just remember this: everyone who is homeless has been hurt so badly that they aren't living in a house with other people.

Music seemed a great way to break down barriers, giving us a meaningful connection. It allowed us to witness the stories and talent of people we usually just walk by as if they are ghosts on the sidewalk. And as we got to know them all, we saw first hand what kind of energy it took to simply survive. Looking for a job, without an address or place to clean up, was a feat in itself. Living without a cellphone in this day and age was almost more difficult than living without a fixed address. Managing time commitments was almost impossible when hours each day were spent looking for a shelter bed for that night. We often raced the clock, getting people back to their shelters on time if we kept them late filming, because if they weren't there by 5.30 p.m., their bed was gone.

In the midst of this, it was striking to witness the dignity with which someone like Bruce Bathgate would pull out his banjo and play on street corners in all kinds of weather, day after day. Over the year we filmed him, he gave up on the shelter system, and started living outside. He slept in a tent next to a graveyard last Christmas Eve.

Like the others, he used music to survive. It felt better than panhandling and provided a point of connection. If you walked by you probably wouldn't hear the music properly amid the cacophony of the city, streetcars and subway trains so we used seven microphones to record.

These songs became a kind of soundtrack of the dispossessed, revealing a modern day hobo culture right in our midst. Some echoed the discord of the Great Depression but with a modern twist; these songs were not born of the collective pain of migrant camps of the 1930s, but out of isolation and loneliness. Each song told a story and each story was of loss and survival.

Everyone had their possessions stolen at one time or another. We worked hard to develop trust, and promised to register their songs in their name with SOCAN. It was the final lesson in the process. How do you register your work without an address or a bank account? By default, we had to register their copyrights to my address. Their unique and most personal material is now entrusted to me. I promised myself I'd never let that trust be abused, but to be honest it feels like a huge burden. It symbolizes a responsibility we all share if we are ever to relieve our homeless crisis. It started for me with listening and really hearing. The lyrics of the songs are full of longing for home.


Photo gallery Canada's Homeless See Gallery