Looking out onto Lake Ontario. Photos by Peter Hosten.

Peter Hosten is, among many things, an impressive storyteller. Below he shares his experiences with addiction, homelessness, and bipolar disorder, alongside photos he took of what he calls his “circle.”

Although this is only a snapshot of Hosten’s life, his story highlights the complexity of planning health care services for this population: he associates the emergency room with being beaten while being mugged, he accessed a variety of supportive services while homeless and still does while housed. He’s had stays in two rehabilitation centres — one in Toronto and one in London, Ontario.

In many ways Peter’s story contradicts what the health care system typically understands of this user group. As part of our research-meets-storytelling project called ‘The Local’, we gave Peter a disposable camera and asked him to document the complexity of living with homelessness, mental health and addictions in Moss Park.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Scroll to the bottom to listen to Peter tell his story in his own words.

Dundas Street East.

“This is generally the areas I used to be, before getting housing and starting to straighten myself out a bit. It’s been trying times for me, but I have to say that the slippery slope, I’m starting to get a grip to get out of it.”

The exterior of Street Health Community Nursing, a community health organization.

“They help you with quite a few things. I battle addictions. I’m bipolar by the way. And I guess that sort of comes with the territory. I’m not using that as a crutch, but I noticed that most of the people when I went to rehabilitation centres, a lot of the people has substance abuse issues. They were also battling with some form of mental illness. I never made the association before, you know? I’m not saying I thought I was one of a kind but there’s a lot of people that way. It’s difficult to even talk about because I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”

“Besides helping you with addictions issues [Street Health] has an ID centre. I’ve been in that place before, sometimes in moving place to place and in the shelter they steal stuff. For instance I had a bag the last time I was here, it’s gone. It’s about trusting too, I developed a good friendship with [one of the staff] over all these years and I can call him — like if something is not accommodated here he can actually link me to [where it is]. So I still use this place.”

All Saints Church Community Centre on Dundas St. E.

“I used to go there on cold mornings you know, that was before they had the Out of the Cold Program. I’d go there, get something to eat, maybe watch a movie. They used to have ping pong or whatever inside there. It’s changed up a lot now, but it’s a place I remember from times.”


Intersection of Dundas St. E. and Sherbourne St.

“That’s from looking across the street. That’s Sherbourne and Dundas. That again, pulling it into everything, it’s a totally different area at night. So it’s kind of nice to take a picture in the day. I wouldn’t be caught dead out there at night. I had situations that happened to me — being mugged, being robbed, I got my job broken. Stuff like that out there.”

Grocery store on Lower Jarvis St.

“This is where I shop, this is Lower Jarvis. I go in there to eat something upstairs then I could sit and read a book or a chapter or two and look out at the water. It’s sort of nice. It’s my area, I feel comfortable there.”

Sugar Beach.

“That’s Sugar Beach. Remember those pink umbrellas with Rob Ford and all that? It’s kind of nice. It’s awesome in the summer. I go there in the night and sit right by the water just looking at the still and the darkness. It had a calming effect on me. Some nights I can’t sleep and I walk down there and walk around George Brown campus and by the time I get home I can probably get to sleep then.”

Looking out onto Lake Ontario.

“I sort of fix myself up for the weekends. Usually my weekends are spent in Scarborough by my family. Sometimes from Friday night or Saturday morning I go up there. I have a lot of nieces and nephews up there. Being the 12th child of 13, everybody else is older than me. They still can’t figure out why I got trapped in this world of substance abuse and stuff like that. I don’t know how to explain that to them, I don’t even know to begin. Shit, I don’t even know when it started.”

“When I was not living anywhere that was difficult, because I would come up there. Even my clothes, my god. After a time I really acknowledged that they were giving me this chance because I remember going there and I would have to call them before I’d go and they’d have a big garbage bag waiting by the door — because they would have clean clothes for me. So I would slip out of what I had on and bag it up — down here there’s bugs and there’s everything. And then they’d give me a clean set of clothes, I’d have to shower, and then after that I’d have the run of the place. Before that I couldn’t do nothing, I couldn’t touch nothing. I really appreciate what they did because they let me back in their lives. I isolated them in the first place by doing what I was doing down here.”

“Now it’s great, it’s like they take me again for who they know I am.”

One of Peter’s computer projects in his apartment.

“I was in Montreal when I migrated to Canada. I landed at Pearson and had a connecting flight to Montreal. I went to school, to Concordia University, I got a B.A. in Computer Science there. That was back in the 80s. Back then we had computers that were big like refrigerators.”

“I just recently build that [computer]. I just get a case and I put everything inside.”

A self-portrait.

“I came [to Toronto] in 1992 and immediately started working. I was in demand and I could leave a job on Friday and have a new one by Monday. The regret that I have was not just sticking there. I sort of wanted to make faster money and I went out in the streets. Pretty soon I started selling drugs. I started with marijuana. I had friends who were selling crack-cocaine. I was standing there and in one hour I made $60 and the other guy made $400 and I said ‘Well something’s wrong with this picture.’ I didn’t have a problem with the cops when I was selling marijuana, all my problems started when I was selling cocaine.”

“I got involved with [cocaine], like physically got involved with it. And then I guess I got careless and got busted. By then my family had to know what was going on because one of my sisters had to come bail me out. By then I had lost just about everything I had. Same people I was selling to, now I was shoulder-to-shoulder eating with them in shelters. I remember one guy, one day we booked into the same place, Good Shepherd, and he said ‘Well, well, well, look who’s here’ as if I was high and mighty. I never thought of myself [that way].”

“I wanted to go back out there and work. Every place I went, even though I was qualified, they did a background check and once they saw I had trafficking charges my resume went either in the shredder or on the ground, It was frustrating, it still is. But the temptation to go back and do this kind of stuff, it’s not there.”

View of the St. Lawrence Market from Peter’s balcony.

“They were offering subsidized housing to homeless people. By that time I wasn’t quite homeless, I was living with my girlfriend in Hamilton. I came down, told them all these shelters [I accessed]. I was going to the interviews three times and all the time they were typing stuff on the computer. Then she spun the computer around and she said, ‘Congratulations, you got housing’ and I said ‘Wow.’ So they subsidize me. The ODSP pays part of my rent and they pay the rest. So for example my apartment down there is $1,151 and they pay a big chunk of that — more than half.”

“I still have issues with drugs, but the slippery slope I could never get a grip to get out of, I’m actually making headway, I’m actually moving in the opposite direction. That alone makes me feel good inside. I can feel myself and the way I breathe and the way I go out and meet people now. And my family is loving me around them — that alone makes me know I’m getting to the places where I want to be, where I should have been a long time ago.”