Words by Leah den Bok, with Tim den Bok
In 2015, my dad and I began a mission to shift negative perceptions of people experiencing homelessness. We have photographed and interviewed more than 400 people experiencing homelessness in cities such as Toronto, New York, and Brisbane. Since the people I document have no fixed address, it is often difficult to keep in touch with them. However, one couple in particular stands out to me. Their courage and desire to be truly seen has stayed with me. Here is their story.
Throngs of people streamed noisily past my dad and I as we stood outside Toronto’s Eaton Centre. Though it was early spring, a winter chill still lingered in the air. Through a gap in the crowd my dad spotted the forlorn figure of a young woman dressed in old, dirty clothes. My dad approached her with a smile and outstretched hand.
“Excuse me. My name is Tim, and this is my daughter Leah. What’s your name?”
“I’m Lucy,” she answered in a quiet, shy voice.
My dad explained what we were doing. “Would you mind if Leah takes some pictures of you and I ask you a few questions?” he asked her. “We’ll pay you $10.”
“Can you take my boyfriend Rylie’s picture too?” Lucy replied excitedly.
Lucy told us that she once had big dreams. “I’ve always been a writer, like, journaling and short stories and whatnot. But now, it’s hard to keep up with the stuff you love, because it’s just survival.” Lucy told us that she has been an opioid addict since she was fourteen. “But it was always manageable. I had a job. I was going to school. I had my own place to live.” However, she eventually reached the point where her addiction took over her life. She found herself with no job, no schooling to speak of, and no place to live.
Though my dad and I have met several people experiencing homelessness who have managed to adapt to living outside in the often harsh Canadian elements, Lucy is not one of them. “I have a hard time with sleeping outside,” she said. Throughout my photoshoot her eyes closed repeatedly. She told us, excitedly, that she would soon be leaving the streets she hates so much. “It’s transitional housing,” she said. “I get my own bathroom, I share a kitchen, and I’ll have my own bedroom.”
Sadly, this was not to be the case. The following fall my dad and I again ran into Lucy and Rhylie, this time sleeping on a broken up cardboard box in the middle of the sidewalk. We were shocked by how much Lucy had changed. Though only in her twenties, she looked as if she was in her eighties.
“At the time of your photographs I think that the both of us had given up on life! Now we have both chosen to live!“
When we published Nowhere to Call Home, Lucy’s photo was on the cover. She was jubilant when I gave her a copy—jumping up and down yelling, “Woohoo!” It was very rewarding to me to be able to bring a little bit of happiness into the life of this woman who, though still young, had known so much misery.
After that, Lucy started not doing well and ended up in the hospital. However, when we got in touch with her again, she had managed, with help, to get her drug problem under control. She and Rhylie now have an apartment together. She has even begun writing again.
Rhylie reached out to us with the following email:
“I can’t begin to thank you enough! Partly because your book exists and partly because you chose Lucy to be on the cover are the reasons we are both alive today! At the time of your photographs I think that the both of us had given up on life! Now we have both chosen to live! We no longer smoke crack cocaine, which was difficult to say the least! Lucy is now at a healthy weight and I think that she’s happier than she’s been in a very long time. I know that I am! We are both currently housed and we are both on our way to being healthy again in mind, body and health!”
Unfortunately, my dad and I have been unable to stay in touch with most of the people experiencing homelessness we have had the privilege of meeting over the past four years. However, we count ourselves blessed to have gotten to know Lucy and Rhylie and hope this is the beginning of a long friendship.