Saskatoon’s homeless population was the centre of attention at a Sept. 3 University of Saskatchewan screening of the documentary A Chance to Speak, which examines the dire effects of poverty right here in our city.
Director and producer Vernon Boldick took coffee orders at the screening and Chris Moyah, one of those featured in the film, jokingly ordered a Pepsi and a meal to go with it. The sense of camaraderie between everyone was palpable and it was clear that they’d spent the last six months working on the film together. Then, the lights went down.
Faith Eagle, who acts as the main spokesperson in the film, opens with the line: “Nobody has nothing, so what do we live for?” At the screening, Eagle was sitting behind me with her daughter. Eagle gave a heartfelt speech after the film, in which she stated that her daughter was one of the reasons she sought help.
A Chance To Speak was born from a night when the crew counted 72 adults sleeping outdoors in Saskatoon in the cold of winter. A familiar scene is repeated in the film, where a couple walks past a man sitting in the street holding out a hat and they continue past him without noticing.
According to research from The Homeless Hub, Saskatoon has an estimated unemployment rate of 4.4 per cent as of 2014. As of 2012, approximately 270 people were living in emergency shelters or transitional housing — in addition to roughly 75 people living on the streets.
Ted Clugston is the mayor of Medicine Hat, Alta., which became the first city in Canada to end homelessness as of May 2015. According to Clugston, it costs $20,000 per year to house an average citizen and that number increases to $100,000 if that person is homeless.
A Chance To Speak aims to give voice to those silenced by poverty. In July 2015, Statistics Canada dubbed Saskatoon the most dangerous city in Canada, a proclamation that has been met with skepticism. Listening to Eagle talk about her experiences, however, affirms this as a reality for some.
“Everybody’s got stab wounds,” she says in the film, laughing at how obvious this is to her but how obscure it sounds to everyone else. Eagle shows off her wounds for the camera; she has scars on her forehead, her legs and her lower back, some almost the length of my arm. “You get stabbed in the face with a screwdriver but nobody talks about it.”
Saskatchewan has the highest concentration of youth gangs in Canada per capita, as of 2012. However, gang violence isn’t the only concern for homeless youth. The film reveals that sexual exploitation and assault are major problems as well.
“You take a 15-year-old girl to a police station, you don’t have sex with her and give her $40,” Eagle bursts out in frustration on screen, explaining how a lack of basic necessities can often lead to sexual exploitation.
After the screening, I sat down with Moyah to talk about his experiences since joining STR8 UP, which is a Canadian organization that helps individuals to leave behind homelessness, gangs and criminal street lifestyles.
“We change our lives around us,” Moyah said, going on to talk about how the community involvement at STR8 UP helps people start a new life. “Our stories say there’s hope.”
There is hope, and A Chance To Speak offers that. Further screenings in Saskatoon will be followed by a discussion including Eagle and Moyah, as well as speakers from STR8 UP and the Saskatoon Community Youth Arts Programming Inc., which aims to give young people the tools they need to succeed.
As I left the screening, one image stood out. Boldick and Moyah walked around the city handing out cheese sandwiches and water bottles, but it wasn’t the food that people most appreciated; it was the gesture. It was the chance to share their stories and to embrace a moment of togetherness.
More information is available on the A Chance to Speak Facebook page.