CM December 15, 
1995. Vol. II, Number 9

image Street People Speak.

Ruth Morris and Colleen Heffren.
Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press. 150pp, paper, $9.95.
ISBN 0-88962-364-3.

Subject Heading:
Homeless persons-Ontario-Toronto-Case studies.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by Kathleen L. Kellett-Betsos.


"Did you ever watch a streetcar go by, and see the whole streetcar look at you with disgust? I have been on that corner, and seen those looks. They should think, `Thank God, through the grace of God, I am not there.' Because the same thing could happen to them."

This book is a timely antidote to the abundant myths we've all heard about life on the streets: "Those people choose to be there; they're all lazy drunks anyway; they don't care about anyone or anything" and, most of all, "it couldn't happen to me and mine." Ruth Morris, a Ph.D in sociology/social work from the University of Michigan, and Colleen Heffren, a community educator and poverty activist, have based this book on interviews of eighty-two street people, taken from as wide a variety as possible in terms of sex, age, race, family situation, and length of time on the street.

Through personal accounts about life on the streets, the ins and outs of hostels and drop-in centres, the street people interviewed make it clear that being homeless is very rarely a matter of choice. More compelling than mere statistics about nameless individuals, these interviews elicit compassion and understanding. One particularly eloquent speaker is Jerry, a bright kid whose relatively well-off parents, unable to cope with his rebelliousness, handed him over to Children's Aid at the age of fourteen. Men such as Chuck and Tom recount their experience of hitting the bottom when their marriages broke up and they were cut off from ex-wives and children.

Carol and her child ended up living in a hostel after her husband abandoned them. When his wife died, Sol began drinking, which lead to problems at work, then loss of his job, and, eventually, life on the street. André had to bring his wife and baby to a family hostel after he lost his fifteen-dollar-an-hour job. Many complain about this trap: job loss leads to homelessness, which in turn makes it next to impossible to get a job. Other factors include mental illness, systemic discrimination against native peoples, alcoholism, and illiteracy. Most of all, homelessness is the result of a lack of affordable housing, in part, because of the gentrification of city neighbourhoods and the loss of single-room occupancy housing.

In their chapter on possible solutions to the problem of homelessness, Morris and Heffren stress that more hostels, however essential these may now be to many of the homeless, are not the answer. Their suggestions include increased nonprofit and low-income housing, an increased minimum wage, a minimum income for those with children, and a tax credit for each child.

Despite an irritating number of typographical errors, this book is important because it gives an authentic representation of life on the street, through interviews and photographs and poems written by street people. Its presentation of the plight of the homeless and possible solutions to poverty would be a good starting place for discussion in secondary school classes from grade ten on.


Kathleen L. Kellett-Betsos is a French Professor at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto.

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Copyright © 1995 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364

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