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Social Science Poverty & Homelessness

Down to This

Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown

by (author) Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Mar 2005
Poverty & Homelessness, Urban, Social Activists
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2005
    List Price

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For some young men, climbing Everest or sailing solo into polar seas isn’t the biggest risk in the world. Instead it is venturing alone into the deepest urban jungle, where human nature is the dangerous, incomprehensible and sometimes wildly uplifting force that tests not only your ability to survive but also your own humanity.

One cold November day, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall heads out on just such a quest. He packs up a new tent, some clothes, his notebooks and a pen and goes to live in Tent City, twenty-seven lawless acres where the largest hobo town on the continent squats in the scandalized shadow of Canada’s largest city. The rules he sets for himself are simple: no access to money, family or friends, except what he can find from that day on. He’ll do whatever people in Tent City do to get by, be whatever bum, wino, beggar, hustler, criminal, junkie or con man he chooses to be on any given day.

When he arrives, he finds a dump full of the castaways of the last millennium, human and otherwise. On the edge of the world, yet somehow smack in the middle of it all, fugitives, drug addicts, prostitutes, dealers and ex-cons have created an anarchic society, where the rules are made up nightly and your life depends on knowing them. Not only does Bishop-Stall manage to survive until the bulldozers come, but against all odds his own heart and spirit slowly mend. An astonishing account of birth, suicide, brawls, binges, tears, crazed laughter, good and bad intentions, fiendish charity and the sudden eloquence and generosity of broken souls, Down to This is Bishop-Stall’s iridescent love song to a lost city like no other.

About the author

SHAUGHNESSY BISHOP-STALL’s first book was an account of the year he spent in deep cover, living with the homeless in Toronto’s infamous Tent City. Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown was shortlisted for the Pearson Writers’ Trust of Canada Non-Fiction Prize, the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize, the Trillium Book Award and the Toronto Book Award. The following year, he was awarded the Knowlton Nash Fellowship for journalism at Massey College. His first novel, Ghosted, published in 2010, was shortlisted for the First Novel Award. He currently teaches writing at the University of Toronto and is a regular columnist for SHARP magazine.

Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall's profile page

Excerpt: Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown (by (author) Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall)

Tent City: A Quick Explanation

Tent City is not a city and we don’t live in tents. We live in shacks and shanties on the edge of Canada’s largest metropolis where the river meets the lake. There’s a fence dividing these 27 acres from the rest of Toronto, and on this side we’ve built what dwellings we can with the rubble of a scrapyard, a no-man’s landfill caught in confusion between the city and private business. Sometimes it seems like a community and sometimes like chaos. Junk Town would be a better name.

Picture a dump, littered with the cast-outs of the last millennium. Refrigerators, stuffed animals, shoes, original paintings on torn canvasses, photo albums, three hundred broken bicycles and toboggans and hockey sticks, TVs and microwaves, lamps and cash registers, headless Cabbage Patch Kids and enough books to start a library or a bookstore or your own education.

Now picture dozens of the country’s thieves and drug addicts, vagabonds and ex-cons. They’re drunk, hungry and tired of running. It’s getting old and getting cold, and one night they find themselves in this place, with the rest of the discards, on the edge of the world but smack in the middle of it all.

They look around and realize that everything they’ve been hustling for is right here: stereos and VCRs, room to move, a perfect hideout and waterfront property. They aren’t way out in the lonesome countryside or the goddamn suburbs or trapped in the same old city. In fact, the city looks perfect from here — the lake, the downtown high-rises, the sun setting beneath the tallest free-standing structure in the world — it’s like a picture postcard. And best of all, there are no laws and no cops — as long as they stay this side of the fence. It’s all private property. No one can tell them what to do, no one but Home Depot, the company that owns this land.

So they dig into a corner of the rubble for something they can use to build. There’s so much, they could make anything. But for now they just throw together a few shelters using tarps and old office furniture. They buy some beer, light a fire, call it Tent City and decide to stay. The smoke rises for everyone to see, like a warning or an invitation. They drink and wait.

For almost four years people have been squatting here, and now some days the population reaches sixty or so. The singularity of this place has drawn media attention from all over the world, as well as a flood of well-meaning, but mostly redundant, donations — if only salvation could be bought with wool hats and toothbrushes. This remains, as much as such a thing is possible, a society of anarchy.

The rules are made up nightly. Repercussions are rarely considered in advance, or recorded for future reference. It is a useful, using and sometimes useless place. The castoffs of the megacity are snatched up, played with, eaten, worn, painted over and tossed into the mud. China plates are disposable, pillowcases never washed. If this place has a credo, it is: Grab what you can, stay drunk and mind your own damn business.

The protocol for moving into Tent City is one of invitation or recommendation. I unknowingly broke protocol. I came without a clue and nothing to lose, to learn about this place, write a book and live rent free. During the month I’ve spent so far, I’ve realized there is no one way to live here and a hundred possible stories to be written. Some people beg, some squeegee windows, some steal, some work jobs, some sell themselves, sell others, sell drugs. Most do drugs, some do nothing at all. I don’t yet know what I’m going to do.

The rules I’ve set for myself are simple: no money or friends, except those I might find from here on in. I’ll do what others do to get by, be whatever bum I choose: vagrant, beggar, wino, criminal, busker, con man or tramp, on any given day.

What follows is a record of my time in Tent City.

November: The Invisible Streetcar

November 15
I’d hoped to start writing yesterday, but then the soldiers were coming at us across the field, I couldn’t find a pen or paper, and I started to shake.

It was my first night in Toronto and I stayed at the Salvation Army shelter down on Sherbourne Street on the east side of Moss Park. On the west side of the park is the Department of National Defence Military Academy. Across from that is an army surplus store where I plan to get my supplies.

The DND trains teenage militia on the turf of Moss Park. Being the Canadian army, they practise strategic advance without even blanks in their rifles. Late at night they charge across the football field toward the homeless shelter, giggling as they shoot each other, yelling, “Bang! Bang! Bang!”

This span of Queen Street, running along the south edge of the park, is covered with junkies, dealers, hookers and cops. And last night I sat among them, smoking and shaking on the Salvation Army steps — trying to alert the others to the attacking soldiers. In no condition to fight, I gave out as many cigarettes as I could and wedged myself in between the toughest and craziest — to my right, 300 pounds of muscle just released from prison, to my left, some guy trying to think of every B word he could and yelling them out in bursts of triumph: “Beer! Beaver! Bread! Bobby Brown!” The soldiers were firing. As if shot, an old man with a nicotine Santa beard lay on his back on the sidewalk singing demonic opera in a dozen voices from falsetto to basso profundo. “O solo frio. Me loony! Me loony! Old man shiver!”

“Barbecue! Blister! Baby brother! Banana!”

“I’m going to kill you, you bitch!”

“Bang! Bang! I got you, dude.”

I dropped my head and stared into the dark space between my knees, shivering and shaking.

Later it got worse. I was lying on a cot and it was as if there were small quakes inside me, my right arm jumping all over, my hand like an electrocuted squid. Even if I could find a pen, I thought, I couldn’t hold one long enough to write. And I couldn’t sleep either, with the sweats and the sound of the guy on the cot next to me alternating all night between violent snoring and savage masturbation, like a man trying to tear himself apart.

I left there as soon as the sun came up, and now I’ve got myself a room at Filmores — a cheap hotel and strip club on Dundas Street. I kind of like the place. It’s an old brick building with a streetcar track out front, so that every seven minutes or so my room shakes, and then for a moment it’s as if I’m at peace and I belong here, shaking in a shaking room.

Editorial Reviews

“Brilliant writing, verging on the poetic.”
The Globe and Mail

“Finely written and bitterly honest … a moving depiction of the contradictions embedded in our common humanity.”

“Some writers go to great lengths to write a book. They climb Mount Everest, follow armies into war zones, go undercover with professional sports teams, or travel around the world on a motorbike, unicycle or some other type of contraption. Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall has more guts than any of those writers.”
Edmonton Journal

“Raw…. a book that should be required reading for all law-and-order community reform crusaders, as Roméo Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil should be for all armchair global warriors.”
Toronto Star

“A book of warm, incisive, commited reportage. It’s inspiring for anyone who believes in non-fiction.”
Quill & Quire

“Refreshingly free of political or sociological theorizing … Creates a cumulative portrait of the punishing lifestyle."
Saturday Night

“Impossible not to be transfixed … Bishop-Stall is deep inside his story and doesn’t preach or get mired in clichés.”
The Vancouver Sun

“A truly amazing book, wonderfully written. All the time I was reading, I was either choked up or grinning from ear to ear. When I wasn't either choked up or grinning, I was weeping or laughing out loud. This is a stunning debut.”
—Paul Quarrington, author of Whale Music, The Spirit Cabinet and Galveston

“After a gonzo plunge into homelessness, Zoodles and booze, Bishop-Stall surfaces with a terrific book, evocative of the writing of Paul Bowles and Hunter S. Thompson. A surprising new talent who writes with verve, wit and insight about life on the urban margins.”
—Patricia Pearson, Maclean’s columnist and author of Playing House

“Superb writing, reporting, and story-telling make Down to This one long wild joy to read. It is a hilarious, heartbreaking, relentlessly honest celebration of survival. It may change you a little.”
—Ernest Hillen, author of The Way of a Boy

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