Women’s Stories: aging, disability and homelessness

Women’s Stories: aging, disability and homelessness is an art and social justice project that is currently taking place in Toronto. The project consists of Red Wagon collective members among  a group of women from the Junction area who have gathered to do a photo-documentary project. The intent of this project is to generate knowledge about the realities of poverty through photography and narratives. We want to speak about our experience with the intention that these issues do not get ignored. We also intend to understand the intersections of women living with precarious housing and poverty and how these are impacted by the aging process and health. Ultimately we need to work with others towards change.

Building on a community collaboration (ongoing since 2008), Women’s Stories has worked to develop democratized ways of generating knowledge within community settings. It draws upon affective, arts-informed, and performative strategies while contributing to possibilities that engage our capacity to produce different knowledge and to produce knowledge differently.

A core group of 12 women (from the Junction neighbourhood in West Toronto) met weekly to engage in discussions about homelessness, disability and ageing. Transcripts that were made from recordings of these meetings were creatively worked over in between gatherings. During this time the women were also provided with disposable cameras with which they took pictures of their daily lives. From the transcripts we extracted pertinent themes and worked experimentally and collaboratively in the creation of prose and poetic texts to accompany the photos. During these meetings we also collaboratively edited and digitally composited the representations.

Marta-shelley-cracked woman

Each representation consist of an image with a red banner along the bottom upon which a subtext is written. Some of the representations also have text on the image. These works project the histories of the participants in ways that allow for gaps, contradictions and tensions to be expressed (Mouffe 1999). This work situates not only the disability experience in an “undecidability”[which is] deeply unsettling to the cultural imaginary” (Shildrick, 763) but also the experiences of homelessness, aging and being women. If we understand these experiences as fluid, intersectional, embodied, uncertain, ambiguous, messy; we find that they begin to conjoin the social and the embodied. Diverse understandings begin to open our conceptual framework (Kester 2004) and provide for a corporeal or fleshy addition to our understanding – the dismissed voices and their relationship to embodiment, expression and larger structures of power begin to emerge. What has been dismissed as excess returns as vital to both the aesthetics and the messages in the work proposed.

As of April, 2013 we have been applying for additional funding to have the suite of photo/text pieces (over 30 in all) that have been created, printed banner size on fabric. This funding, if received, will also go towards doing a performative event based on the banners and knowledge developed in order to engage the larger community.

As well we have made a monograph that includes many images and excerpts of the knowledge and analysis that was spoken during our discussions, recorded and transcribed. Each woman who participated will get a copy of the monograph, as well we hope to have copies to send out to select community and anti-poverty groups as well as political representatives and community health practitioners who work with precariously housed and homeless people.

Kester, Grant. 2004. Conversation Pieces. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Mouffe, Chantal. 1999. “Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism.”  Social Research, 66(3): 745-758.
Shildrick, Margrit. 2005. “The disabled body, genealogy and undecidability.” Cultural Studies19(6): 755–770.

View the digital version of the monograph:  WomensStories


WS-We have a message18 copy

I was a teacher
I was an artist
I was a philosopher
I was a mother
I was a gymnast
I was a secretary
I was a nurse, I was a secretary
I was an economist

What am I now?
Homeless, aging, disabled and unwanted
How does society help me?
Place me in a shelter and forget about me.
I have plenty to offer.
Give me a chance.
I want to belong to society
Give me a chance.


Our research project is supported by our community partner, The Salvation Army Evangeline Women’s Residence with funding from the Canadian Center for Disability Studies, the Faculty of Health, York University and Function in the Junction. Our group includes women with complex lived experience and incredible stories to tell of precarious housing, disability and aging who are living at Evangeline and in the Junction neighbourhood.


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