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Vital People: Existence Project gives voice to the homeless

Everybody who has experienced homelessness has a story — and those stories have the power to build bridges to understanding.
Dennis Palubeski, left, tells Luca Rieter a story at an Existence Project storytelling workshop in Anawim House Victoria in 2018. Via The Existence Project

Everybody who has experienced homelessness has a story — and those stories have the power to build bridges to understanding.

That’s the premise behind The Existence Project, a non-profit founded in 2016 that began interviewing people living on the streets of Victoria with the goal of humanizing homelessness.

The project has evolved since then into a team of five who create workshops, accessible multi-media projects and community events that give a voice to those on the margins.

“Everybody has a story. We want to refocus on the person, connect with them and tell person-centred stories,” said Meera Mathew, director of events and operations for The Existence Project.

“Stories can be the most effective tool we can wield against the stigma around homelessness, because it humanizes the conversation.”

Since the project’s beginning, the group has provided a platform for 44 storytellers — all whom have been unhoused at some point or are currently experiencing homelessness — training them in storytelling and content creation.

Funding from the Victoria Foundation supported the planning and implementation of storytelling workshops that connected more than 280 new supportive housing residents with housed neighbours in their community.

In the past two years, The Existence Project has held community workshops in 11 neighbourhoods. Apart from listening to those experiencing homelessness, the workshops ask community-based organizations to reflect on social issues affecting their neighbourhoods and to help come up with solutions.

“We can build better solutions for the unhoused when we collaborate,” Mathew said. “It’s beautiful when you have a connected community that supports you when you need it.”

With community support, the organization has created Moving Day, a documentary about a community of unhoused people that formed in Beacon Hill Park during the pandemic — and the day members were forced to leave.

More than 450 people have viewed the documentary at various film events since January.

Anybody who has experienced homelessness and wants to be a voice for others who aren’t able to share can become a storyteller. The Existence Project will provide storyteller training and a video content creator to film a mini-documentary over the course of a month.

Participants can opt to speak at a workshop event instead. Either way, everybody who finishes the process will be given a cash honorarium.