On any given night, there are more than 2,000 homeless young people on the streets of Toronto, according to Covenant House. Their lives are not easily understood but some are taking it into their own hands to tell their stories.
A new CBC Short Doc video series called RED BUTTON aims to shed light on the day-to-day struggles of the homeless population, by outfitting them with camera phones and audio equipment.
The first video in the series tackles addiction by following a young man named Rabbit. A self-professed fentanyl addict, Rabbit recounts how each day follows a similar pattern: panhandling in order to buy street-level drugs so he can combat withdrawal symptoms.
"It's never enough. I don't know how I'm going to get off the needle," he says.
'It's never enough. I don't know how I'm going to get off the needle.' - Rabbit, in his video in RED BUTTON Project
"I'm tired of running, I'm tired of being afraid."
Rabbit makes it clear that it is a life he no longer wants any part of and hopes for a better future.
"I don't want to be a career homeless person," Rabbit said during filming.
"I want to have a family, I want to have a partner, I want to have kids. I want a life."
Each of the videos, shot by different people, focuses on various hard realities of living on the street — from addiction, to life in homeless shelters to struggles with mental health.
The producers of RED BUTTON held a one-day workshop to teach the new filmmakers the basics of how to use the camera and microphones.
But beyond simple instructions, Robert Cohen, executive director and creator of RED BUTTON, said they were left to decide what part of their lives they wanted to share and what kinds of stories they wanted to tell.
"The ones that took part in this project felt very empowered to tell their own story. It wasn't neccessarily easy for them; like most people, we're not used to putting a camera on ourselves."
Storytelling as empowerment
Entering the world of the homeless population and trying to chronicle their lives can be difficult, if not met with hostility.
But Cohen said giving the power of the narrative to each filmmaker and having them tell personal stories of their struggles resulted in unparalleled access.
"They were honest and had a great candour about their lives, their experiences, what brought them to where they are. And I don't think we would've gotten that kind of intimacy with a traditional documentary crew."
But Cohen said the project soon became something larger, and lent both a voice and empowerment to homeless youth, who don't often have a chance to speak out.
"It's about personalizing and humanizing the stories we read about in the media ... They're not afraid of starting a really honest conversation about what he and other homeless youth."
The producers say they don't yet know how many episodes will be featured as part of the project but add that beneath the stories of hardship, there are messages of hope.
"The common characteristic of so many of the youth that are involved in this project is resiliency," Cohen said.
"They're going through a lot of troubles and obstacles; life is not easy. But you can see it in the material we've shot that the youth have a determination to overcome their circumstances."