Young Ontario photographer captures hardship of homelessness

WATCH ABOVE: With one book now on sale, Leah Denbok is not letting up. She says she is committed to two more publications featuring images and stories of those struggling on the streets or in shelters hoping to raise awareness and humanizing those often ignored by society. Crystal Goomansingh reports.

Standing outside the Bayside Mission in Barrie, Leah Denbok shivers as she sets up her camera gear along the sidewall. The 17-year-old and her dad, Tim Denbok, hang a black square of material securing it to the wall with duct tape.

It might be an odd location for a photo shoot for some, but not for Leah.

“It’s really cool to see someone closed off and reserved open up and become friendly,” she said.

With the launch of Leah’s new book, Nowhere to Call Home, she is one step closer to her goal to raise awareness and to humanize those often ignored by society. For the past three years, she has been travelling to shelters around Ontario and in New York City taking pictures of those who don’t have a place to call their own.

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“I always wonder what’s happened to them,” Leah said. “Some of the stories are sad and I hope they’re good. I wonder if they got that job or found that house that they wanted.”

Since the people she meets and features don’t have a full-time place to stay, keeping track of them can be hard. But she remembers their names, and their stories – many of which trouble her.

Major Doug Lewis, executive director of the Bayside Mission, smiled broadly when speaking of Leah.

Proceeds of her book will benefit the mission’s food program, which makes 300 meals a day. The organization also provides emergency housing to those in need.

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“Leah has the ability to gain people’s confidence to speak with her and she has a passion to raise awareness,” Lewis said.

Leah’s book now available from Friesen Press and on Amazon. She also started a Kickstarter campaign.

“The books cost money to make and we want it to go to charity, but at this point making it has come out of my university fund,” Leah said.

“We’re hoping people will want to help with that cost.”

Two other additional books are in the works and the teenager has multiple engagements around the world, including the 2018 Women of the World Festival in Australia, as word spreads about her work to humanize the homeless.

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During a photo shoot Monday, Brian and Chad agreed to have their photographs taken and share a few details about their lives with Leah. They are each paid $10 for their time.

Brian said he has struggled with opioids and has spent time in jail. He said he chose to leave his parents’ home to stay at the Bayside Mission in the hope of getting his life together.

“I’m choosing to be homeless right now. I needed to do something to get my life together. I needed to leave that situation behind,” Brian said.

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Chad said he has had similar challenges and is open about the impact kindness can have, and how quickly a person’s life can change.

“We had everything. A good job where I was making $120,000 and we had a condo in the city. Everything was going right,” he said.

“Suddenly it all stopped. It can change in the blink of an eye.”

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Chad has the word “love” tattooed across his right hand and plans to get the word “pain” on his left hand.

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“Not everyone here is a bad person. Everyone here has a heart. We’re people too,” he said.

Chad said he hopes Leah’s book and her art will encourage people to stop and say, “Hello,” and that those on the street will be treated with dignity.

“Give them the time. Say, “Hi,” because just saying, “Hi,” makes us smile – makes us feel like we’re apart of society.”