“This is not a shelter”


Rene Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe (1948)” is a well known surrealist painting about the interplay between language and representation. In front of the contrast between the representation of the pipe and the denial of it , the observer is triggered to question himself: “If that is not a pipe, then what it is?”. Clearly what he is seeing is not a pipe , it is just the symbol of a pipe.

In my city – an italian middle-sized town of North Italy – the municipality is playing the same surrealistic game. Everynight hundreds of homeless people find shelter in the public places. Either it is the train station, in the park, in the abandoned buildings in the countryside they share the experience of sleeping rough and exposed to cold, theft, and abuse.

I live next to the balconades where the audience uses to sit during the bike races, next to the city stadium. It is open air but a wide roof offers cover from the rain. The place is covered in dirt: stink of urines, broken bottles, used needles are everywhere. And I see everynight at least five persons sleeping there. As a city dweller thus, I ask to myself, “If that is not a dormitory, then what it is?”


I believe the city should be designed for its user’s need rather than the countraryI have found an answer to this question: if people sleep on the balconades to find a shelter, then this place must be recognized as dormitory. Then, I have placed a bed, an alarm clock, a pair of slippers, a pillow, blanket and sheets on the balconades. Then I added a signal to make it more explicit: “dormitorio”.

In the following day the bed was left there to be accessible to anybody who wanted to use it. The first and second night it was not used by anybody. The third day, in the morning the municipal cleaning service removed it, as they would do with the sleeping bags or mattress of every homeless person. The city does not give space for homeless persons, who are overchecked by the police, and are criminalized for the simple fact of living in the public space.


On last week, a homeless man on the balconade told me that the police waked him up asking: “What are you doing here?” “What a nice question! I don’t have any other place to sleep, don’t you see?”. Everybody knows, still nobody cares.  How are we going to challenge this statement?

Voices from Downtown Toronto

share the privilege

Click on the following link: Faces Toronto to explore the map of Downtown Toronto seen from the Other Side of the Street.

If you can click on the faces displayed on the map, you will access directly to the narrative or photo of one homeless person. The appearance is liberally inspired to the persons I have encountered but their name have in most cases been changed. Additionally, the narratives are fragments to a longer conversation that has been recorded and transcribed. 

“Mapping the process of  ethnography, as a journey to explore unexplored issues, we try to let emerge an aesthetical dimension implied in the practice of anthropology, from the fieldwork to the representation, although often hidden in the public results. The map makes visible the fenomelogy of the ethnographic process, allowing the reader to grasp the  “with a gaze” the complexity, and the iterative process of the fieldwork.  Serendipity, “the art of making an unsought finding”,  takes part in shaping the ethnographic process of discovery. The discoverer needs to be knowledgeable  enough to link together apparently innocuous elements in order to come to a valuable conclusion or understanding. In fact, in my case, it is a web of encounters and a cluster of thought provoking conversations with homeless person sharing with me the same spaces of the city that motiveted me to gain a better understanding of the issue of homelessness.” (Tassi 2013: 4)

Extract from “The Other Side of the Street: stigmatization, displacement, counter-narratives of Downtown Toronto’s  homeless persons“. Thesis of Francesco Tassi for MA in Anthropology and Visual Languages, at Università degli Studi di Siena (a.a. 2012/2013)

Toronto(s): the city from the inhabitant’s perspective


The representation of the city as a whole is differentiated in the existence of different images of the city based on the different practices of inhabitance of their dwellers. Individual’s images of the city reflected the coexistence of multiple social and cultural identities within the global city.  In the present chapter, we will focus firtsly on the concept of lived space and social production of city space; secondly, we will introduce the concept of homeless city, finally we will point the ecological dimension of homelessness as condition of living “out of space”.The urban sociologist Henri Lefebvre, distinguishes different types of space: perceived space refers to the relatively objective and concrete space that a person reacts to in her daily environment. Conceived space refers to ideas about space, creative mental constructions and representations of space. Lived space is the complex amalgamation of perceived and lived space (Lefebvre, 1991b: 39 in Purcell). In the city, it is `the space of inhabitants and users’; it is fully imbricated in a person’s everyday life routine, which embodies the urban as a cognitive map of meaningful places where social rituals are performed. So that, the city – a complex of infrastructure, transportations, open/closed spaces that are signified by the social actions perfomed: movements, breaks, work, free time, shopping, entarteinment and so on – it is not just a stage on which social life plays out but represents a constituent element of social life. Usually, the image of our hometown is a familiar image; one that we may even say reflects our identity.  When we live in space that “talk our language”, we can “feel at home” there. Because our identity is reflected in the space we inhabit and in return this is reflected in the way we navigate the city. We know how to orientate there because we have acquired the knowledge that is the outcome of our history of routinary movements in the city. We know how to orientate our body in space, where to get food, where to have fun, where to find the grocery store, where to buy clothes and gifts, where to read a good book, where to watch a movie, where to get money, where to find a hospital, where to invite a partner for a date.  When we have a good image of the city the space appears uniform, controlled and full of meaning.  “A good mental image gives an important sense of emotional security to the person who has it that allows to establish a harmonic relationship between the self and the surrounding world. This form a feeling: opposite to the sense of displacement of who has lost his orientation, the sweet feeling of having a home is stronger when the home is not only familiare, but also distinctive” (Lynch, 1960)Accordingly, each dweller does not have a clear image of the city (Lynch, 1960), full of symbols it its prime core and blurred in its margins, but a representation that mirrors its own map of movement in the city (Cambini 2004:105). Above all, it is through a spacialized experience in a web of places that it is possible to perceive the city. In fact, only  the practice of movement between the places of the city do the dwellers give meaning to it, hence they signify it. The lived city space is made by all the routinary action of all the individuals identitities that, with their interwined paths and itineraries, produce the city space.But when we move to another city, another neighbourhood, an uncharted space, we fell disorientation because the local categotization of space according to its social uses, is still invisible to the eyes of a foreigner. In global cities, it is sufficient to move from one neighbourhood to another to experience a similar process of displacement, that is, to loose one’s own image of the city. Because of globalization, diverse people frequently live within the same political boundaries, and thus in the same area of the city different identities and discourse can enter in conflict to define the nature of the space that remains in the end a terrain of battle. From a cultural point of view, a place is to be considered the crossroads of structures, people, spaces, identities, and narratives in conflict. Class, racial, and ethnic hierarchies mark urban space with differential meanings. Also, these spatialized identities are communicated through visual signs that codify inhabitants’s identity through the local culture of the neighbourhood, so they are an important component of social agency. In the context of urban neighborhoods, people create expressive signs in the course of their everyday practices when they enact rituals of identity. Among the most visible of these practices is the use of flags, national colors, or place names to proclaim origins (Shortell, Krase 2010:10). Accordingly, every particular space of the city is the outcome of a sum of actions, each of them bringing the signs of human intention; the inhabitant of the global city does not live Toronto, but one Toronto.
As D’Aloisio notices, “the use and the values given to the space enter in the everyday construction of the subjects and of their horizon of meaning; this concurs to perform, when not properly to transform, spaces” (D’Aloisio 2007: 187).  This whole idea reads the whole city throughout the particular spatialized experience of inhabitance of its dwellers.  Hence we need a holistic perspective that takes into consideration this interplay of fact. As a result the urban, as Lefebvre argued, is an “oeuvre” (Purcell 2003:584) – a work in progress, thus, the city, rather than a settlement, it should be thought of as a work of art. The artist is the collective daily life routines of urban dwellers.  Therefore, urban space should not be valued as a commodity for exchange; it should be valued as an oeuvre that is created and recreated day-by-day, by the everyday practices of its urban inhabitants.In conclusion, our argument is that if we ignore the image of the city of the homeless Torontonians, which is competing with the one of the rest of the housed population, our knowledge of the city is necessarily incomplete. Consequently, to talk about homelessness in Downtown Toronto we have to engage with a discourse about the city spaces as well as their narratives, which express the meaning associated with it. An exhaustive analysis of Downtown Toronto as a lived city space by its housed dwellers cannot be completed without the map of the homeless city, which is the city  daily experienced by its homeless inhabitants.

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Fragments of the Home-less city

David – Bloor West Street

David, about 40 years old, migrated to Canada from Mali. David has been on the street for years, categorizing as chronic homeless. He lives between the neighborhoods Christie and the Annex. Although his brother lives in the city, they have lost all contact with each other. He is followed by a doctor for a mental disorder.

F: Why people ignore you?

D:“…Because they are ignorant or stupid, maybe is something in consequence. People have to show you confidence, encouragement and understanding, not ignore me, they collect money for nothing. It is meaningless like that, it is nothing! Like today you are here, tomorrow you die. So what is money? They are more focused on money. You have to do something to change it. You have to believe in God that’s all. Nobody changes to nobody, that’s will, interest. You need people with good heart and open minded.

F: If you could communicate with all these people what would you do?

D:“But almost all the society is not living this way (…)They try, most of them they try. But either no… One day? I don’t know. One day maybe (it)will be good. One day there (…)You have to have something to… I mean, if you want to do something you will do it, there is nothing impossible. God gives you help to create or to change. But still I am leaving here. I have a roof over my head, that’s all. In hotel or room…

 F: “David, I think your experience is important”… (how do you become homeless?)

D:“There are two choices, you know: some of them, this is very hard to understand these people, so that’s stay in the street. Because of social and political situation, but some of them like adventure. Some of them are poorer than everybody. ”

F: “What about you?”

D:“I have become homeless because I have not alternatives,  I have tried, I have tried but it never happened. I have tried so many things, for example the same like you or different people.”

“They say they have something to give me? Answer yes or no! if not, how can I know? They say “wait wait wait” but for how long? This is very disgusting ! For how long I have to wait for one job or rental housing. For metro housing you have to wait for 20, 10 years. What is the difference? you pay here you as you pay for metro housing. “

“The government  pays for everybody,  if you don’t have money, they will pay. Whether you are a citizen or not they pay you, because you are not an animal but a human beings.  Here is like everywhere else France, Switzerland is all the same. “

“Now they changed the system, it used to be socialist. Now is more conservative, now is more complex. That’s way the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. That’s why the difference  in the income, is big between the sky and the ground… Because the middle class become more rich, this is part of the problem and the poor people, nobody can see them, because they are poor and they don’t have money to spend.”

“There are many homeless people, not only on Bloor-West street but in general. There are depending on families sometimes, but they said no. The family has no money for food or anything. And you need money for everything: food, rent and everything… how can they give you extra money rather to your son or rather… “

“The main thing is the economy: when the economy is big they expand to the people to the welfare, to the church, but if the economy is zero everybody needs money. Everybody needs money. I don’t have money the problem is “expandation” (sic.).

“Sometimes if you changed the idea sometimes is even worse. When you change system the economy will become something else because you don’t know . This system is good for the people, if it want  good why the people are not accepting.”

“People with money are also not happy, they have to use the money. In different way: like discothèque, if you collect money, nothing. Tomorrow is tomorrow, today is today. Maybe we are not here you are somewhere else.”

“Today is your turn to be happy, you have hope to be the same, the same day. There is hope: The same day the same discothèque, the same beer, the same job every day.”

“Today is a lucky day for me, tomorrow is the same lucky day. Why Collect, collect money? Tomorrow is nothing. Maybe you will go to Niagara and lose all your money. It not nice there, it is addiction. You sell your house, it’s crazy, you become kuku! You have to manage, you have to care about your family. If you finish all your money where do you go? Even your family will not help you. You have to find balance, you have to think from now to 5 years, what I am going to do. At least you have to have a house, if you don’t have a place and money, where are you going  to nothing?”

“Money is sometimes power. With money I can buy food, bread. Nothing is free in this society, not like before. Before it was much money. But now time is changed. Canada and everywhere is not the same. People sleep outside, people who came here with a dream. It’s hard, eh?”



Andrew – John Street


Andrew, 20 years old, is a young busker from British Columbia. He plays harmonium or guitar as he panhandles on the street with his dog and benefits from the subsidized housing program of the municipality of Toronto. He thoroughly enjoys his style of life, and  has many friends with a similar life to his own.

“Homelessness is all out there, You see it everywhere, is like paying attention and looking for it. They give money for karmacy, “not to become like that”. Give some money so that they don’t end up in the same spot or they don’t feel guilty. The crazy thing about all this stuff is that even though everyone is walking around with the life they have bought from the store, they still are people. The people are still fucking people, no matter what. Is like when you meet somebody on the street who is a f# bastard…

One person on 30 people, will give me money because I am a buskers, but all the other because they think something else about me. And mostly is: “ I see people begging for money all the time and I don’t care anymore” Maybe they think I am on drugs, maybe they don’t know and they don’t care, or they are afraid just to step out of their shell and to talk to someone. How many times I have seen people give me money and don’t look at me, in my face, because they are afraid to acknowledge who I am but they give me money because they are just so afraid to feel like person with me, to reclaim their humanity. You can usually tell who is taking the money for do drugs, to buy cracks, math,  but most people don’t, they use money to buy food, food for dogs and so on…

Like yesterday: my banjo was stolen and I was asking money to get change… and I asked people, “yo man do you have some change to fix my violin” “people just completely ignore you, blantly” “people just  would look at you and smile or not, just to give you a recognition of your existence.”

The reason because people are doing this all the time is because they don’t have energy, they don’t because this world breaks you down. Breaks you down so much for all this alienation that is going on, people would put somebody under the shoes just to (…) All this fucking rich motherfucker but they are fucking tired.. and is not even the time and the type of the work, is more like lying to yourselves. Is like sitting outside in the cold, it takes yours energy, and is the same thing with all this people walking to some office building – instantly everybody is fake – no one is talking honestly to each other… some they would say: “How is going George?” “Oh don’t bad”. While the things are really fucked up.  They don’t really care, this is a way of pretending to be human that they should, is almost a currency. It is completely meaningless. Is completely weird, nobody really cares but they are have to say that otherwise they are going to think they are assholes.

In the supermarket. Check this out: I had to go to a meeting and the guy asking me: “How are you doing, bro?” “I am fucking bad. things are horrible”. “Holy crap, I hope it gets better!”. This lifestyle is structured in this way, this is how society is structured, I don’t know even know this person and we don’t have communities outside to have a relationship. World is crazy too big.  When you are dealing with milions and milions of people is no more about community… is crowd control.  There is no time for anyone. In supermarket people have just time to say blabla.  In a village that is different… in the supermarket people actually know each other. Here there is just too many people for a community. Why should it be millions of people crowded in such a small area?

I live in Weston.. there are lots of Black there. Everybody don’t really know each other. Is just out of ease, there are always gonna be racial prejudice. People don’t go over with what they feel comfortable with what they found comfortable, they found comfortable what they know. so if somebody is from Haiti, I will want to go there. They are like Subculture. subculture are not communities, they share interest andlook (style ndr) but they still don’t care there is nothing to make them care. They don’t care about each other.

And that’s what’s sad about it,  If you break it down: if you take somebody on the street and you don’t really ask him about anything but you simple start talking like they are really human being  they become human again. So it is about how you look at people. When you treat someone like a human, they are going to respond like a human back. They will still try. Is rare to find people than don’t do that.

Sometimes is hard to find people that can do that. Like cops, they are just so ingrained, like business people. I remember once just asking people about what time is it… nobody answered me for 20 minutes. Everybody is rushing everywhere but they are not going anywhere. People is always in rush but they are tired. People cannot just say, “relax, I don’t want to pretend anymore. I can just be myself” but they don’t know how…  That’s why there is a tv in any single house!”. Everybody plays videogames and go over computer. The only time in which people really want to be with each other. The only time you find people going together is usually a party. Alcohol is an amazing things, brings out your feelings.

I prefer somebody trying to fight (like all the animals do) me than treating me as an idea of something, people thinks to people as a concept, as an idea. Everyone has to buy a life and pretend to be the person in that life. (…)that’s what I talk about people being emasculated. People thinks to other as concept or ideas, if everybody do not have a life, everybody pretends to have a life and that means they have to pretend they are the. Fighting poses a threat to a society. (…)

F: What would you change of the society?

A: “I would change the city. I would just have villages.” (…)“I don’t have a job, I usually don’t even have a house. I have not to do anything. I live on the street, I am sleeping outside and I am happy with it like, like everyone in this country. I don’t care, I got rid of the distress and all this stuff… I do find thought that when I am on the street and I am playing music with my friend, everybody is passing they know, they fell what we are doing and they like it. I think that’s how I make my money: I don’t make money because I am a cool musician, I am funny or I am cleaver… I make money because I make people feel good, and so they feel to join me. I give them back their humanity. You cannot ignore five people playing music loudly and yelling on the street for two feet in front of you. You have to notice that: is going to snap it down from their little robot head. And make the people say: “there are people around doing what they love! Cool!”.