One traditional concept of grad school may suggest late nights poring over journals and books in the library, and months of developing a final dissertation. In York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES), however, students have been known to shatter traditional stereotypes, which explain why Mike Yam’s grad student experience led him to make a movie about Toronto’s homeless.
Unheard Voices is Yam’s 47-minute documentary that follows Toronto’s homeless through the urban landscape. The project was born out of a personal interest in social policy and homelessness, nurtured during Yam’s studies in the master’s in environmental studies (MES ’10) program. Yam says he aimed, through his film, to “raise awareness about the issue of homelessness and create empathy for the subjects. If [audiences] can empathize with the people in the film … it will hopefully get them to care about the issue.”
Right: A film screenshot highlighting the realities faced by more than 300,000 individuals who face homelessness each year in Canada
Unheard Voices can now be viewed by anyone online at York’s Homeless Hub, where it is being hosted for free. The online availability follows a screening for the York community by the FES.
Co-produced by the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, the film showcases the lives of seven homeless individuals who speak candidly about the challenges they face living on the streets. Unheard Voices also critically examines the City of Toronto’s Streets to Homes program, demonstrating part of what Yam identifies as “a system gone horribly wrong.”
In the film, a 50-year-old former nursing home caregiver named Sharon explains her struggle with addiction and its impact on her challenge to find suitable housing in the Streets to Homes program. “You can’t put a crack addict in a hardcore active crack area. They’re not safe there,” Sharon explained. “The first day I moved in, I met a dealer. I was connected right away.”
Left: In this documentary screenshot from Unheard Voices, Chris, originally from Grenada, discusses his return to school with an unstable housing situation
The documentary explores topics such as shelter overcrowding and violence, social assistance, health complications, employment challenges and the personal circumstances leading to the homelessness of those interviewed in the film.
Since Yam’s graduation in 2010, Unheard Voices has been screened multiple times around Toronto, including several times at York University and Ryerson University. The DVD has also seen interest from several high schools requesting copies for their libraries. Yam hopes to continue screening the film in public and at festivals. He says, “It’s up online, which is a good step, but it would be great to see other people using the film … since it’s available for free.”
Yam credits his MES at York as leading him to develop his filmmaking abilities. He offers the following advice to future students, “Take advantage of the unique structure of York’s MES program. Do some field experience, craft your own independent projects and take interesting courses to help shape your plan of study, [and eventually] major research project. The MES is a great program for people who have interest in social policy and activism, because it allows [students] to explore these avenues academically and practically.”
Submitted by Michael Young and Alicia Brown, Faculty of Environmental Studies