On a mild March evening, nearly eight-hundred names were featured in chilling procession as an engaged audience held candles in vigil below.
Rebecca Houston’s installation, Stone and Glass: We are all transient, part of the ongoing Myseum Intersections festival, highlighted the scourge of homeless deaths in our city and mourned the victims of a tragedy that has long persisted.
It is a tragedy defined by the bloating list of people who have died as a result of homelessness, compiled by the Toronto Homeless Memorial Network across two decades in a testament to the grave impact of reduced funding for housing over the same period.
The multimedia installation employed several modes to communicate its impetus, but its centrepiece was the projection of the names of the dead onto the stone of the south wall of the Church of the Holy Trinity.
Each of the names, many of them John or Jane Doe, were displayed individually and given time to sink in, reinforcing a compounding effect as the accompanying years inched toward present day in a process that took two hours.
Motivated by the tireless work and advocacy of others, Houston envisions her installation within a larger collaborative framework, saying, “I think partly what this installation is doing is giving a larger voice to work that folks have been doing for a long time. … the [needed] action isn’t unknown … [this event is] an effort to amplify that call.”
In particular, the installation is the natural extension of a movement in Toronto that manifests itself in the Toronto Homeless Memorial service, which is held on the second Tuesday of each month at the same south wall of the social justice church, near an austere wooden frame that now only barely houses the list of the dead.
Houston has a similarly collaborative attitude toward the Myseum festival, citing her installation as one of “a very diverse group of projects for Myseum Intersections,which are not your typical city museum projects,” adding, “if your question is what’s the history of Toronto, you’re getting this very amazing wide view, so I think that’s probably the power of having … a museum without walls; you don’t have the same restrictions on what kind of mandate you’re going to have … [it’s] a little more ephemeral.”
During opening remarks, Houston offered her thoughts on her installation’s connection to the festival’s theme of intersecting perspectives, followed by Britt Welter-Nolan, Myseum’s Director of Public Programs, and Cathy Crowe, “Street Nurse,” a longtime ally of the city’s homeless.
Reverend Sherman Hesselgrave and Bonnie Briggs, founder of the memorial, read two original poems; their verse is a regular feature of the monthly service, and their poems about poverty, death, and the apathy of our society were a fitting prelude to an evening as much about our failures as a society as it was remembering the lives lost.
The initiation of the projection was flanked by a smudging ceremony by Andrew Wesley and the spiritual songs of the Smoke Trail Singers. The interaction between the guttural voices of the singers and bare, booming drum was powerfully moving, and elevated the visceral impact of the names etching the stone in light.
Inclusion of the smudging ceremony and spiritual songs constituted a recognition that the Indigenous community has been disproportionately affected by the problem of homeless deaths. As Houston and others pointed out in their remarks, many of the deceased were victims of the residential school system.
Steps from our city’s core intersection, this section of the evening also suited an event held on traditionally First Nations lands.
Following the songs, the audience was invited to move into the church at its leisure to experience the other elements of the installtion.
Inside the church’s ample, welcoming structure, clad with wood and stained glass, the installation’s other components fortified the vigil’s impact.
The white-tented audio memorial featured a tapestry of recorded voices reading the list of the dead. It was augmented by a projection of corresponding sketches and panels by Jim Houston, described in the program as an “artist, activist, historian and Holy Trinity parishioner,” whose artwork is touted as a documentation of “the faces and stories of the Holy Trinity community.”
In the centre of the room, an ornate rug was reimagined as an interactive graveyard of white cups. Guests checked names off of a printed copy of the list as they added a corresponding cup to the floor. This artistic element succeeded in providing a supplementary means of appreciating the gravity of the names on the list.
Asked why art is an important way to communicate the problem of homelessness, Ms. Houston, a sculptor, installation artist, and MFA, says, “[Art] shows respect to people as people and as creators, and it elevates your interactions with people away from just being recipients of charity, and when people are creating our poetry or culture for us to enjoy, we’re engaging on a higher level with each other, we’re more giving back to each other.”
Recalling her eight years working with Sketch, an arts centre for homeless youth, she continues, “[It is] treating people as culture-makers and art-makers primarily that counteracts some of that dehumanizing that happens when you have kind of limited options on rights within social service work, so I think it’s really important that people can express what’s happening, and then you reach more people that way, and it’s a more powerful and meaningful way to connect.”
Creative expression, upraised to focal point for Stone and Glass, is also important to the Toronto Homeless Memorial service, which makes use of poetry and song each month.
Greg Cook of Sanctuary, a member of the steering committee for the THMN who is involved in the monthly service, elaborates, “I think everybody connects with art. I think we all create things in the course of our lives. So I think it speaks to part of what it means to be human. … I also think it can offer hope and a voice.”
The creative displays of the evening each connected to a cohesive concept of humanization, but political concerns were equally inextricable from the spirit of the installation.
Houston’s audio memorial contained the voices of influential politicians, including Kristyn Wong-Tam, city councillor for the area encompassing the church; Ana Bailão, councillor for Ward 18 Davenport, whose advocacy for shelters to be built in her area are a notable rejection of NIMBYism; and Adam Vaughan, who, as a prominent Liberal MP, is in a position to influence an improvement to housing policy in the upcoming budget; it is an issue he has taken interest in throughout his career.
These involvements make Houston hopeful for the future. “I think every time you bring [a politician] in and you get their voice, for example, recorded on something to do with homelessness, then it reinforces that when they are speaking in City Hall they have to remember their engagement … they have to carry that memory forward and use that as a way to push for change.”
Summarizing the importance of pushing for change, she says, “Better housing policy could prolong and improve the quality of lives dramatically.”
None of this is to say that she is not aware of the challenges. She delineates twenty years of governmental failure to make housing a priority before saying, “I think it’s interesting and important to look at [the THMN list] and to look at the numbers on the list and the names of the list and … to line that up with public policy, and to see directly how public policy leads to death on the streets.”
Similarly, according to her press release, the list “illustrates the devastating impact of neglect in funding affordable housing over the past twenty years.”
“We’ve had policies that have been better,” agrees Cook, citing a shelter system that is chronically overcapacity and a spike to fifty homeless deaths last year, a number “up [dramatically] since a couple years ago.”
Both Houston and Cook referred to a push by advocate groups to open up Moss Park Armoury as emergency shelter space. This is an example of a policy that could be impactful and swiftly executed.
Although he is passionate about making shelter beds more available, Cook adds, “you can’t have stability and quality of life if you’re living in a shelter, and so you need housing.”
For all its emphasis on policy, Stone and Glass, in its barest essence, was an expression of grief.
For Cook, this expression agrees with the most fundamental aspect of the monthly service. Beyond the significance of the memorial services for the general public, “… it’s important to hold onto the very personal aspect of it, to leave space for people who knew the people who died to tell stories, to celebrate their life, to have a space to grieve … especially for those people who have had friends die, that’s really … to me just at the centre.”
Says Houston, “recognizing each individual life as a significant loss is important.”
To me, that recognition was both the thesis and best achievement of Houston’s installation.
On the church’s orientation table, as I began to leave the event, I noticed a framed picture of Beverly Bernardin, a woman who died in February, and whose bereaved friend had spoken the day before at the monthly service, a man I recognized in attendance at Stone and Glass.
I could not help but linger on the church’s steps as the swaddling of the season’s first spring air coalesced with the unconstrained chords of the guitar of Tom Smarda, whose acoustic folk songs are a staple of the monthly service.
In a testament to the success of the event, it was a moment ripe for reflection.
Rebecca Houston’s Stone and Glass: We are all transient evoked the creative spirit, political drive, and harrowing grief that so often intersect at the south wall of the Church of the Holy Trinity. It is a junction which has embedded itself into the soul of a movement that chronicles our city’s failures but that motivates our hope for a warmer future, out of the cold shadow of our blind eye.
Rebecca Houston’s “Stone and Glass: We are all transient” took place on the evening of Wednesday, March 9. The “Myseum Intersections” festival of which it was a part runs until the end of March.
The Toronto Homeless Memorial service takes place on the second Tuesday of each month at 12pm at the Church of the Holy Trinity.
~ Marcus Bankuti
Marcus Bankuti is a socially-conscious writer and editor, steadfast Torontonian, and a graduate of Ryerson University’s Arts and Contemporary Studies program. He's focused on pointing a thoughtful eye at the humanity of our urban landscape.