Documentary The Stairs takes honest look at life on the street

The documentary The Stairs explores the reality of life on the streets. It's screening this week at the Princess Twin theatre in Waterloo and one of the film's main subjects is originally from the region.

Film shares the stories of 3 people including Roxanne Smith, who is originally from Waterloo region

Roxanne Smith, right, hopes the documentary The Stairs opens conversations about drug use and harm reduction. She's shown here with another subject of the film, Greg Bell. (Cam Woykin)

A film that wants to change how we understand life on the streets is screening this week in Waterloo.

The Stairs is a documentary by Hugh Gibson, which received awards and accolades after its release at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016. It tells the stories of Marty, Greg and Roxanne and how they've used their experiences with drugs, prostitution and homelessness to give back and help their community.

Roxanne Smith grew up in Waterloo region and will be in Waterloo for a screening this week at the Princess Twin theatre.

The film grew out of a project Gibson was working with Toronto community health centres on, to make educational videos about safer strategies for sex workers and crack users, he told CBC K-W The Morning Edition's Craig Norris.

After making the educational videos, Gibson and the people he met wanted to do more, he said.

"I wanted to make something that humanized a lifestyle that had been dehumanized and really reflected their experiences that I hadn't seen in movies, TV shows, etc.," he said.

Film maker Hugh Gibson, left, got the title of The Stairs from a poem written by Marty Thompson, right, one of the subjects of the documentary. (Cam Woykin)

He says the film shows audiences that people on the street aren't just their struggles and the stereotypes — they're funny, smart, quick-witted survivors who are part of a community.

Using experience to help others

"A lot of what the film does is run contrary to what people believe," Gibson said.

The film's title comes from a poem written by Marty that tells about experience living in the stairwells, which Gibson says is similar to the film in that "it's heartfelt, funny and surprising."

Smith says the stories of drugs, rape and abuse she and the others share in the film won't be surprising to anyone who's lived on the streets.

"The things that happen out there happens all the time, it's not like that was a new experience," she told Norris. "I thought it was a good opportunity to educate people… and open up some alleys of new conversations."

When she was on the streets, Smith says she was something of a mother figure and was always counseling someone.

If you're on mobile, watch the trailer here.

By the time she was in her 30s she says she was becoming exhausted and a friend had told her about the assaulted women and children advocacy course at George Brown College. She applied without telling anyone and surprised herself by getting accepted.

While in the course, Smith says many of her fellow students didn't know about things like harm reduction and expanded her understanding of what advocacy needed to be.

Some of her stories from life on the streets shocked her classmates on more than one occasion, she said.

"A few times I said things I'm pretty sure stopped the whole class for the afternoon," she said.

Now working at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre, she said employers value the real-world experience she brings to the table. Smith can relate to her clients because she's been there. 

Smith says she's a bit nervous to show the film to a hometown crowd, though she's invited several old friends from elementary school to the screening.  

She hopes the film raises awareness about programs such as the supervised injection sites coming to Toronto, the need for naloxone and other harm-reduction strategies.

"Hopefully they'll take away some understanding, hopefully they'll take that conversation out and educate someone else," Smith said.

The Stairs is showing at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at the Princess Twin in Waterloo. Gibson and Smith will have a panel discussion after the movie.