Sunday, July 8, 2007

Street Life

Mini-profile of Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall; was in Saturday Night in, I think, the April 2004 ish.

It’s a common journalistic exercise: a reporter tries out life on the street for a few days, then returns to middle-class comfort to pronounce on What It’s Like to Be Homeless. But don’t put Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall in that category, even though his first book chronicles his own stint in a notorious urban shantytown.

For one thing, Bishop-Stall stayed put in Toronto’s Tent City for nearly a year, relying only on whatever resources he could scrounge. And for another, Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown (Random House Canada) is refreshingly free of political or sociological theorizing. “I wanted to write an adventure story,” says Bishop-Stall, and so the book’s focus is squarely on his daily struggles – and those of his volatile new neighbours.

Located on a patch of unused lakeside land, Tent City was home to dozens of Toronto’s homeless, who slept under canvas, slapped together homemade shacks, or lived in donated “prefabs.” Bishop-Stall joined them in late 2001 and remained until the following September, when police evicted all squatters and closed Tent City for good. For Bishop-Stall, surviving those 10 months meant building a livable shack on his own, earning food-and-booze money, and mastering the obscure social codes of his new world. (“Goof,” he learned, was the worst insult imaginable.)

The 29-year-old journalist cultivated his sense of adventure early on. Raised in Vancouver, he left home at the age of 17 to hitchhike to Costa Rica, and since then has lived at various times in Mexico, Italy and Spain, using Montreal as his on-again, off-again home base. In the fall of 2001, crisis hit as a book project and a relationship both collapsed, so Bishop-Stall decided to live in Tent City for a year and produce a book about it. “Things had kind of blown up for me in general,” he says. “I’d lost my place and my girl and my dog – living in a tent didn’t sound so bad.”

Not so bad if you don’t mind being at the mercy of rats, rainstorms and cold, not to mention everyday aggression stoked by widespread alcohol and drug abuse. “There was a particular complexity to the violence,” says Bishop-Stall. “You win a fight and you’re gonna get stabbed that night. There’s no real way to win until you have friends.” Those friends and their stories give the book much of its power. Jackie, an early ally, regularly disappears into crack binges and prostitution; another, Eddie, dreams of going straight and raising his newborn son, but instead ends up in thrall to Tent City’s dealers.

To gain the trust of those around him, Bishop-Stall was careful not to fall back on outside resources. “It’s impossible to get the story of people on the street unless you spend enough time there that you become part of it,” he maintains. He arrived in Toronto with only a small amount of money, which he quickly spent on supplies, and when he signed a book deal midway through his Tent City year, he had the advance deposited in a trust that he couldn’t access until his stay was over. He did take some precautions, though: once a month, he would meet up with his agent to turn over the notebooks he’d been filling.

Those notes form the basis of Down to This, which is presented in diary format. The day-by-day reportage does make for a long and repetitive book: at times the narrative seems an endless parade of incoherent arguments and senseless fistfights. But the form also creates a cumulative portrait of the punishing lifestyle, and captures a sense of growing dread as Tent City’s crack trade grows in power.

Post-eviction, Bishop-Stall lives in Toronto, working as a freelance journalist and working up other book ideas. He’s checked in with his old neighbours at two reunions, one six months after Tent City closed and another on the first anniversary. But he’s also suffering, he admits, from both survivor guilt and culture shock: “The hardest thing to do is relax, not be on the edge.”

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