These 13 winning photos by people who’ve experienced homelessness will make up the next MYTORONTO calendar

Hardship and periods of homelessness have left a positive mark on the heart of Maria Santos.

“It stayed with me. You just don’t forget that. You become more humble,” said Santos, 54, explaining that she once relied on emergency shelters, sometimes with her very young children. “I just love to give back, because of the lived experience. For me it just puts a smile on my heart.”

See the 13 winning photographs that will be part of the MYTORONTO exhibit.

Lived experience is what drew Santos to the MYTORONTO project, a photography contest for people who at one point in their lives did not have a place to call home. All the participants are given disposable cameras and instructed to fan out across the city to capture what Toronto is to them. The top 13 photographs were made into a calendar and gift cards.

Santos won this year’s reader’s choice award, through an online vote, for an image of man who called himself Dragon pushing a shopping cart near Bloor St. W. and Dufferin St. Her photo will be on the page for September.

“For some reason I just felt something. I saw this guy walking with his shopping cart covered with bottles,” Santos said. Dragon was friendly and willing to pose, she said. “That right there inspired me even more. I felt good in my heart. Just talking to him and taking the photo. I could tell the way he was posing that he felt good.”

MYTORONTO was modelled after MyLondon, launched by Café Art in England in 2013, and made possible by humanitarian organization Ve’ahavta, working with community partners. This is the second year in Toronto. The Star tracked the winners during the inaugural contest, from camera distribution day through to a public photo exhibition and street sales.

For this second round, 111 disposable cameras were handed out, 93 cameras came back and judges went through 2,600 photos. The calendar and gift cards will be sold online and across Toronto. The top 40 images will also be on display at Artscape Youngplace, starting Thursday and running through to Oct. 19.

Chosen for this year’s cover is a portrait of a white-bearded man, sitting with his back resting against a wall of graffiti in Kensington Market. The photographer, who goes by CJB OCD, told organizers he learned about the contest by reading about it on a bulletin board and credited God for coming across the scene that would become the winning shot.

“People usually personalize what they see when they’re the audience. So, they can see it any way they want; that’s for them to interpret. This might remind them of their beard, their father, their relative, their brother,” he told organizers, who sent his quote to the Star.

The calendars and gift cards both cost $20 and are sold by the winning photographers. They keep half the money and the rest goes back into the program. This year both items will be sold at select locations of Aroma Espresso Bar, at a different location each day during the week of Nov. 19.

Cari Kozierok, Ve’ahavta’s executive director, said one image that really spoke to her and to the giving spirit of the contest was taken by Morsi Luc and shows a man walking by a person lying on a rain-soaked patch of Bay St.

“We are surrounded by a very serious problem that we as human beings feel a call to do something about and we don’t know what to do,” said Kozierok. “We can notice, we can listen to stories, we can meet people affected by poverty and give them a name and a space and a path.”

Maria Santos, winner of the MYTORONTO reader’s choice award, spent time in the city’s emergency shelter system. “You have to be able to get along with people, because people are on top of each other,” she says.  

Santos, a single mother of three who came to Toronto from Portugal at the age of four, described the challenges of surviving with her children while using the city’s emergency shelter system. “With children it is no joke. It is quite stressful when you are in a cramped small room and there are other moms with small babies. You have to be able to get along with people, because people are on top of each other.”

Santos now lives with one of her daughters. Ongoing challenges with anxiety made her too nervous to enter the contest last year, but this time she pushed her fears aside and jumped in. Santos was not trained in photography, although having three children meant she was always taking photographs. “I just like to reflect and look back. There is nothing like great memories.”

The contest was a beautiful experience, she said. She’s since joined the Ve’ahavta Street Academy, an adult education course, and signed up for a speakers bureau to further boost her confidence and help her manage what she describes as severe anxiety.

“People wouldn’t know that if they met me, but I’m working really hard.”

She said she hopes that speaking about her own challenges and progress will encourage people to seek out help — because it is there.

Santos also has been trying to find Dragon and wants him to see the exhibition.

“We just don’t know what people are going through,” Santos said. “At the end of the day we breathe the same, we bleed the same, you know, we are human beings.”

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