We Want You To Listen: Shelter Video Project

*Note: there is harm reduction-specific content throughout, and a section focused on harm reduction at 41 minutes.


With the attacks on unhoused folks in encampments, the city of Toronto is trying to say that being in the shelter system is better than being on the streets. The Shelter Video Project: We Want You To Listen shows that this is a lie. We have been working on this video for almost five years and are sooo ready to be sharing it with a larger community! The shelter system has to change and society has to reckon with its ethical failure in regards to the treatment of unhoused peoples.

The Shelter Video Project originated when Rebecca Garrett was doing interviews about the lack of shelter space for the video Bursting At The Seams, but shelter residents talked instead about the institutional violence of the shelter system. So we decided to form the Shelter Video Collective and make a whole separate video. Collective members share lived expertise of being unhoused, poverty, disability, insecure housing, colonialism, racism, classism, sexism, and stigmatization. We work together across intersectional differences in privileges, some of us housed and some of us not. Those of us still living in shelters are experiencing the atrocious conditions described in this video as we speak. Collective members talk about how gentrification aggravates the conditions of unhoused people, the failure of harm reduction, as well as offering an analysis of the carceral continuum which likens shelters to prisons. Shelter Video Collective members speak out at great risk of retribution to themselves, both from the shelter system as well as from a public that stigmatizes people who have been homeless. Discrimination is a reality that unhoused people face.

Under covid – shelter residents have been put at risk and many shelters have experienced outbreaks. Meanwhile, living in a hotel is no better. There are not proper protocols in place to keep people safe and residents are blamed for everything.

Shelter staff claim that they want to help the homeless, but when you ask for supports the answer is oh no, we don’t help with that – well what the fuck do you help with then? The system should be giving people the tools to live independently instead of bombarding us with rules that are impossible to comply with.

The shelter staff have unions, but the unhoused have no association to advocate for us. Staff should be as accountable as the residents. For a mere infraction, real or imagined, a resident can be tossed out on the street as garbage. We are here like sitting ducks left to fend for ourselves, waiting to be shot while so many unhoused people are dying.

When we speak up we are ridiculed and not believed. We are stigmatized and stereotyped – we hope this video shows you the complexity of our lives. Often when we are in a shelter, other facets of our life have been interrupted, this is not the entirety of who we are and what we have and are living!!!!!!!!! And we are human beings, before everything else. Aren’t we all?

“When I got into the shelter system I never thought that I’d be here for 6+ years. I had no idea that it would be this hard and that there was no affordable housing. I’m so disgusted by this society, it’s exhausting. Nobody cares, especially people in power.”

We experience their hypocrisy, we see it.

All the work of putting this video together was done within a collective process, from shooting video to consulting on editing. We enjoyed some experimental moments of video making as a group – and while considering the public response – we also sought to give space for what our process produced aesthetically and the integrity of the representations of the members in the project.

Working on this video has been hard, it’s been triggering, but it has also been nice to be working with people who understand what we each are going through. That we can uplift and hold each other up through the process of making the video. Ultimately, it’s sad: instead of pursuing our other interests as individuals, we have become experts in institutional violence and now come to be makers of this video.

“As I pray for a world that works for everyone: I think that the shelter system will not change until privileged peoples experience these spaces.”

We hope that this video will cause people to think and imagine ways to develop shelters as places of dignity, harm reduction, restoration and care, rather than humiliation, debasement and oppression. It’s all our tax dollars that are paying for this abuse and it’s the responsibility of the public to speak against the violence of the shelter system. There is always hope that the system can be changed. This video is an expression of that hope.

text by Lisa LeBlanc, Opal Sparks, Kim Jackson on behalf of the SVP Collective