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After homelessness: who creates solutions?

A police officer tasers a homeless man who refuses to leave his temporary, tarp-covered dwelling on a city sidewalk, resulting in the man’s death. A crack dealer in a wretched downtown eastside hotel offers to pimp out his female friend so that she can pay him back for the drug money she borrowed. A clerk at a government housing office can find no record of a homeless woman’s application for rental accommodations, even though she’s made repeat submissions for the past seven months.


These dismal events, taken from real-life experiences of people who live on the streets, appear as provocative, grim scenarios in the Headlines Theatre play After Homelessness. Two weeks of performances at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver, BC and the Holy Trinity Cathedral in New Westminster have produced a compelling production, guaranteed to rip away the don’t-get-involved complacency of any middle-class viewer.


The play features six main characters, performed by actors who have all known homelessness in their own lives. These range from Nico (Justine Goulet), a young, dreadlocked rebel with a punk attitude and a desire to remain drug-free, and Shawna (Sandra Pronteau), a crack-addicted thief, to Bob (Kevin Conway), a near-broke man on lithium who finds solace in alcohol after eviction from his condo.


In another play, these characters could well appear as crusty stereotypes, eliciting pity or even dismissal from a contemptuous audience. But Headlines Theatre bills itself as “Theatre Making Policy”; as artistic director David Diamond tells us from onstage, it’s not enough just to write and perform a play about homelessness.


As a society, we need to come up with positive outcomes  for those who battle daily with homelessness and any accompanying combination of addiction or mental illness. How can social solutions reflect compassion, respect, and dignity when city authorities too often treat the homeless like a blight that deserves no cure?


The play After Homelessness invites audience-members to think beyond knee-jerk responses and bureaucratic models that degrade people and their situations. Instead, it offers viewers the chance to respond immediately, from their guts. How?


By yelling “Stop!” any time during the production when they can relate to a particular incident or attitude performed onstage. The audience-member who calls out goes onstage temporarily and replaces an actor, taking on the same role through improv interactions with the other characters. The results? Sometimes different outcomes and kinder choices, but always ones in keeping with the character’s original profile. In other words, no magic solutions.


At times, Diamond stopped the action, asking the actors to share their innermost secret thought in a scene, one that they would never normally share. In one case, the female audience-member whose character was angry and frustrated over her lack of success with the housing registry, replied: “I feel like blowing the place up.” Her remark shocked me, yet it reflected her true sentiments in that situation.


Diamond told our Wednesday-night audience at the Holy Trinity Cathedral that mainstream media were not reviewing this play because of its audience-motivated interaction, performances and discussion. Supposedly, this format did not render it a “real” play, worthy of coverage. What crap.


(Ironically, in the next morning’s Vancouver Sun, an editorial had the headline: “Policy breakthrough: House the homeless first, then help them with their problems.” It acknowledged the “classic Catch 22 — you can’t get help to solve your problems until you have a place to stay, and you can’t get a place to stay until you’ve already solved your problems.”) Gee, I wonder: Did the writer see the play? 


I applaud the performance format of After Homelessness, especially in a region where millions are spent on creating Winter Olympics venues, with comparatively little money targeted for adequate shelter and housing for the urban homeless.


A study by the International Olympic Committee concludes that the construction of new affordable and social housing has not kept up with the number of homeless people. A 2008 Metro Vancouver count recorded at least 2,660 homeless people, a whopping 373-per-cent increase since 2002.

December 5, 2009 at 1:59 pm
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