How 15 youth in Brampton, Ont., are telling the stories of 5 homeless seniors

How 15 youth in Brampton, Ont., are telling the stories of 5 homeless seniors

Danielle Pilloud, 15,  whose family couch surfed when they lost their home a few years ago, is among a group of young filmmakers in Brampton, Ont., producing a set of films featuring the lives of five homeless seniors — something the aspiring documentarians have never done before. 

"I wanted to understand more how someone who had it worse than I did, how they feel," she said. 

Pilloud's family had until recently stayed at a friend's house while they got back on their feet after her mother was laid off.

"It was difficult because you don't have anything, so I know a bit about what that's like," she said, noting this experience challenged her perceptions about Brampton's aging homeless population.   

The five short documentaries, shot over one week by a total of 15 student filmmakers, provide a glimpse into the lives of seniors who have experienced homelessness or are currently living on the streets.

In one-on-one interviews, the seniors opened up to youth behind the camera about their personal stories and offered up tidbits of wisdom. Together they created a special bond that transcends generations, according to organizers.   

This was the first time that Reel Youth offered an intergenerational program focusing on homelessness. The non-profit organization that runs animation and film programs for youth worldwide has been touring across Canada for over a  decade.

Mark Vonesch, director and co-founder of Reel Youth, explains that the new program not only teaches youth the basics of videography and post-production editing, it also fosters their leadership skills and encourages budding filmmakers to enact positive change within their communities.   

"We use filmmaking as a catalyst for connecting youth to their power — having them explore their abilities to be leaders and to work with others, and to tell stories that are going to have an impact in the world," he said in an interview with CBC's The National.

Joshua Boxill, 15, who claims he "didn't know anyone that has been homeless" before joining the program, says working with Kendal Binskin, who has been homeless several times during the last 35 years, changed his perspective on how they're treated.

"[Homeless people] need more help and that's what I really want to convey with the film."

Binskin, 50, talks about this struggle in the documentary. He has lost his job several times over the last 35 years, an experience that sometimes forced him back onto the street for survival. 

When he walked into St. Michael's Hospital seeking treatment for pneumonia, Binskin says he was confronted by people's negative perceptions about homelessness.  

"I remember the nurse telling me, 'You know what your problem is, you need to get yourself off the street,'" he recalls.

"She was telling me this like it was my fault, telling me like I didn't want to get off the street. I did — I just didn't know how."        

According to United Way, 14 per cent of the population in Peel Region, which includes, Brampton, Caledon and Mississauga — close to 190,000 people — are on the brink of becoming homeless. 

"Reel Youth brought my attention to this," said Boxill. "I got to actually go in and talk with people that were homeless and see what their lives are like because generally when you're walking on the street you don't just stop and start a conversation with a homeless person."​

He said what struck him about Binskin is that they could talk like old friends. 

"He picks up on bits and pieces of my personality that you can only get from me if you knew me for a really long time," he explains.

'Youth have blown me away'

Vonesch says he started Reel Youth to try to inspire these kinds of shifts in thinking among young people, as well as expose them to life in different communities. 

"The youth have blown me away," he said. 

"Seeing the young people have a better understanding of homelessness is really powerful as well. I think it's common in our society to sort of tell young people, 'You know, don't talk to people on the streets,' or 'You know, avoid homelessness.' For a lot of them this is first time where they've actually been able to have a real conversation and seeing their sort of gears turning their mind around, well these are real people." 

The five documentaries will be screened on Jan. 24 during the Reel Youth Film Festival in Brampton. 

"I feel like once you get to meet someone who has been through a hardship and they get to share that with you, you kind of take on a part of that hardship in yourself and you understand what it was like," said Pilloud.