Humanizing the homeless: Teen's portraits shed light on life on the streets

Leah Denbok, 17, has spent the past three years photographing the homeless to 'shine a spotlight' on their plight and to humanize them.

'My own blood was in that situation,' says 17-year-old photographer Leah Denbok

Leah Denbok's book of photography Nowhere to Call Home — Photographs and Stories of the Homeless will be released later this year, with proceeds going to charity. (Leah Denbok)

Meet Leah Denbok, a 17-year-old photographer from Collingwood, Ont. In the past three years, she's walked the streets in her province in Toronto, Barrie and Kitchener, as well as in New York City, capturing the lives of the homeless with her photos.

Many of the portraits will be featured in her upcoming book. Nowhere to Call Home — Photographs and Stories of the Homeless will be released in the fall, with all proceeds going to the Barrie Bayside Mission Centre.

(Adrian Vit/David MacIntosh/CBC)

Along with her father Tim, the pair offer $10 to each person for permission to tell their stories.

"With my book, I'm trying to portray two goals," said the teen photographer. "First of which is to shine a spotlight on the plight of homelessness, and second, I'd like to humanize homeless people because so often they're seen as subhuman individuals."

According to the latest report by Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, at least 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness during the course of a year, and 35,000 are homeless on any given night.

Leah Denbok has illustrated the lives of homeless people in New York City as well as several Ontario cities, like this shoot, in front of Toronto's Eaton Centre. (Adrian Vit)

Denbok's empathy for people begging on the street "because their life circumstances have changed" comes from her own family's past.

"My mom was actually homeless herself when she was only three years old," the teen said.

Sara Denbok was found in the streets of Calcutta, India in the early 1970s, and was brought by a police officer to Mother Teresa's orphanage.

Sara Denbok was found in the streets of Calcutta, India in the early 1970s, and was brought by a police officer to Mother Teresa's orphanage. (Submitted by the Denbok family)

"Mother Teresa saved me and took care of me for two years," Sara Denbok said in an interview. When she turned five, she was adopted by a couple from Stayner, Ont., near Collingwood.

The 17-year-old isn't shy to share her mother's experience, something that has helped guide her project.

Here's a look at some of the people Denbok has documented:


(Leah Denbok)

Lucy — who appears on the cover of Denbok's book — had a big dream of being a writer or a journalist but opioid addiction has thrown her life off track.

When Leah showed Lucy the photo of her taken the day before in Toronto, she was "ecstatic with excitement."


(Leah Denbok)

The circumstances that led to Ronny finding himself without a residence began with the death of his six-year-old daughter to cancer. In the aftermath of the child's death, his wife took her own life.

To numb his pain, Ronny sought drugs and alcohol for help and ended up losing everything. When the Denbok family met him downtown Toronto, he had only been living on the street for 16 days, and hated "every minute of it."

Leslie and McLovin the cat

(Leah Denbok)

Leslie found McLovin five years ago on the street when the docile kitten was about a week old, starving.

"I used to be a drunk," Leslie admitted to Denbok, "but I cleaned myself up."

Leslie has been working towards getting his own apartment to move in with McLovin somewhere in Toronto.

"I have first month's rent already," he said.

Nicole and Vinnie

(Leah Denbok)

Nicole, a 21-year-old mother from Fredericton, left her one-year-old daughter at home with her grandmother and took a 24-hour bus with her boyfriend, Vinnie from New Brunswick to Toronto.

It was her first time to a big city and she "naively" thought that since Toronto is so big, there would be "lots of work." The couple soon found themselves begging on the street and sleeping in a tent.

"She had a wide-eyed, small town innocence," said Denbok's father, Tim. "I ended up giving them some extra money for their tickets [to go back home]."


(Leah Denbok)

While Kathryn may be homeless in Toronto, she has a good sense of humour. She jokes about her family: "My sisters got my mother's blond hair and all I got was her arthritis."

When her photo shoot was over and it was time to say goodbye, Kathryn grabbed Tim Denbok's hand and told him it was so nice of the family to do this.

"Most people just ignore me."

See more of Denbok's photos