A new documentary explores the stories and music of Toronto's homeless buskers.
Their music forms the soundtrack to our daily commutes, yet their stories go largely unheard.
In the new documentary The Lowdown Tracks, filmmaker Shelley Saywell and musician/activist Lorraine Segato profile five of Toronto’s transient street musicians, weaving together their personal stories of adversity with the triumphant sounds of their songs. From Katt Budd, a young mother recovering from addictions issues, to Wendell “Woody” Cormier, a country music lover dealing with the long-term effects of electric shock treatments, each member of the “Lowdown Tracks club” must overcome their unique struggles while attempting to navigate the city’s labyrinthian network of social services systems: systems that force musicians to choose between busking licenses and welfare, or between access to a shelter and the security of their possessions.
In advance of tomorrow’s screening at the Regent Park Film Festival on National Housing Day,
“I started singing when I popped out of my mom’s womb, and I started writing songs when I was four. When I was seven I had an unfortunate circumstance where I was molested by my piano teacher, which coloured singing since then. It was hard to sing and not feel shame. Because I was never validated. Everyone just tried to pretend that it didn’t happen.
I’ve been healing over the last couple decades, and [participating in the film] is the icing on the cake. I’m going to take this second chance that the world has presented for me. Trying to do better than I did the first time. There’s a better attitude that I have towards people.
When you live on the street, it’s really hard not to get jaded. No matter what you’re looking at, you see street. You need to get that out of your eyes, so that you see people for what they really are, which is kind and generous, when you give them the chance.
At first, I didn’t know if I could trust Shelley, because I didn’t know who she was, or what her agenda was. When you’re on the street, you’re projecting what you’ve experienced on all these new people who are showing up. There’s a lot of people who say they want to help, but they don’t mean it. So it took me a while to learn to trust her.
This is a second chance for me, to explore this talent that I never thought of as more than a hobby. And now Shelley is helping me grab it with both hands. I’m cleaning the shame off, just letting it go and enjoy it for once. I heard myself say today on the streetcar, ‘I’m 58, I’m too old for this.’ But then I told myself ‘Don’t say that! This is your chance, and don’t let any negative thought that you have mess this up.’
I have to work through a lot of fears, my fear of singing, my fear of having money, my fear of attention. Sometimes I feel like a geriatric teenager, because I’m catching up with all of this. A geriatric teenager, you really don’t want to put both of those in one body!
In every shelter that I’ve been in, most of the people who are there are artists. Stuck artists. It’s hard to watch. So I hope [this film] can inspire them along their path, and encourage them to have whatever life is left for them, too. It’s transformative for them, but it can also be transformative for everyone who watches it, because they’ll have a broader idea of what homelessness is. And if they didn’t have compassion before they saw the film, they might find some afterwards. It’s magic, the film changes people back to kind.”
“The idea for the film came from a concert Lorraine gave years ago, a benefit for homeless relief at the Berkeley Street Church. She had partnered with all these shelters, and found these really awesome homeless musicians to be the headliners. I was sitting there going, ‘Oh my god, these people are incredible! What are their stories?’ It was December 9th, snowing outside, and I realized that the audience was just going to leave here, and have no idea where these people were going.
In making the film, we were guided by this notion of de-stigmatizing, of redefining the way we see homeless people, showing their talent and potential, and their beautiful spirits and stories through music. But we were convinced we couldn’t find them. We’d see these great buskers, but you don’t want to just go up to someone busking and say, “Hey, have you ever been homeless?” It was very tentative, very sensitive. We went to some groups, some shelters in the city looking through their music programs, but we actually ended up finding all five people profiled in the film on the street. It was just meant to be.
The whole process was trust building, a two-way street. Everyone in the film has been hurt, so many times, and lied to so many times, so Deb and I decided from the beginning that everything we say, we have to do. Everyone has our number, and if they call or text us we have to be there. This cannot be just when the cameras are rolling. It’s been three years now, and it doesn’t really end. If I make a film with someone, it’s a bond of trust. And it’s a responsibility.
After each screening, people would contact me and ask what they could do to help. [The filmmakers and I are] not experts on homelessness. So we’ve partnered now with the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH). They have a campaign to house 20,000 in the next 18 months. Homelessness is a completely solvable problem. There’s no reason why someone in this country should be homeless. And when you send someone who’s homeless from this bureaucracy to that bureaucracy to fill out this form, it’s so confusing. They don’t have a phone, and they’re trying to figure out where they’re sleeping that night. It’s cruel and it’s unfair, so what [CAEH] is doing is getting everyone together in the same room.
Bruce [another busker featured in the film] got housed yesterday, because [CAEH] saw the film and said, ‘Let’s start with people in the film to draw attention to this.’ They brought him to a room with the City of Toronto people, and the housing people, and they’re also getting him a doctor so he can be qualified for a disability. It’s one-stop shopping. Had he had to go from A to B to C like that, he would have never done it. It’s too overwhelming.
My friends always joke with me about the movies I make. Another war zone, or another woman being killed. And this film is obviously heavy in many ways, but it was joyous, too. This project has the real life stories that people are trying to survive and get through, but you hear it through their beautiful music. And you hear the possibility.”
Anthony Van Zant
“Eight years ago, after 35 plus years of addiction, I was ready to jump in front of a subway train. It was only because of my daughter showing up that I stopped myself. I completely bottomed out; there’s no other way to say that. And to come back from that, the only way to build myself back up was to write songs and start speaking for those who couldn’t.
I’ve now spent a bunch of years working on programs with social agencies, shelters, and police services and advising them on protocols. Because right now they’re picking guys up in the park and storing them in provisional holding cells until midnight. When they’re released, they’ve lost their curfew, they lose their shelter, they lose their stuff. And then they have nowhere to go. I want to shake up this system, this foundation. So when we pick people up we don’t lose them.
We need to start seeing all voices at the table, so that we can work collaboratively. Accommodating people, rather than working from the top-down. It’s like our conversation right now. To get the story, you have to meet the people. Otherwise you’re just guessing.
Everyone has seen a man on rags on the ground. It doesn’t matter if you’re the two per cent, one per cent or the 99 per cent, we have all seen these men. If we decide to come together pick that man up, apply some advocacy and get him a housing worker and a health assessment, in 120 days, he’ll be back on his way. And now we know each other, and we can work together on larger change, on a movement. To me the magic wand is working together.
I know, people are going to be asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’ That’s just the way it is. What’s in it for them, is being able to give a world to their grandchildren where people are healthy, where they work collaboratively. There is something for all of us.
This word ‘stigma’ is complex, it’s a reflection of how things are going currently. But they’re not doing it on purpose. John Tory was not raised on George Street. How can I expect him to understand right away? My past, for example, shows the same thing. I didn’t used to be so community-positive. But I learned to dig deeper, and to use this opportunity and these times we live in to transcend that. To see real people in whatever clothes they’re wearing. This will be done one person at a time, with individuals and agencies acting as models for this, with us speaking for those who don’t have this voice.
I see this film as an act of defiance. As a challenge to stigma, as a voice. Even you and me here, talking right now, is part of that. We would have passed each other on the street yesterday, so how powerful is that? We need to bring as much attention to this issue as possible, so we can start changing the system in real time.
To let people know that when they fall, we see them. And we will pick them up.”
The Lowdown Tracks screens at the Regent Park Film Festival on Saturday, November 21, 12 to 2 p.m.
It will also be broadcast on TVO on Sunday, November 22, at 12 a.m.