Photo of Stephanie by Simon Semchuk.
Photo of Stephanie by Simon Semchuk.

If you walk downtown you’re guaranteed to see a familiar face. Peterborough is a place to run into friends, but what about those faces you know in passing? Maybe you know their names, but you probably don’t know their stories.

I hit the streets to find Stephanie: artist, cleaner, and panhandler. You can usually find her in the mornings in an empty storefront between Hunter and Simcoe Streets. I sat down with her to chat about her life.

Tell me a little bit about your life.

I’m 35. I was born in Toronto and came to Peterborough in Grade 4 and I’ve been here ever since. I used to live with the owner of Hi Ho Silver when I was a teenager.

I do art at home; I took art all through high school. I got into philosophy and cultural studies at Trent with an art portfolio… I have a one bedroom apartment… and there’s art on all the walls.

I’ve made art everywhere… And I’m on disability. So I hear people talking to me and touching me. I get paid with disability and it pays for all my rent and phone bills and food and soap and all that.

So why did you start panhandling?

I used to do some cleaning at Hi Ho Silver but anyway the voices were biting at my body so I couldn’t work anymore. I couldn’t work anymore. ‘Cause they were grabbing a hold of me and touching me where they shouldn’t touch me….

Yeah, so I couldn’t do that anymore. So I was upset and I sat out here, and for the last five years I’ve been out here. And yeah, the voices are so terrible that, yeah, this has been the best thing for me, to be out here.

And I’m not doing any sudden movement, I’m not like I’m not scrubbing or picking up stuff so they don’t tend to grab at me anymore.

That’s good.

Yeah! And because they talk and you can’t see them it gets pretty sad if you’re alone and they’re just talking and talking and there’s no one really there.

So this has been great for me, to come out here, and then I get to see people… and talk to people and keep my real friends real and my invisible voices not real.

Haha! …I have really negative voices. They rape you, they’ll fart in your mouth, they’ll try and put maggots and cat piss in your mouth. They’re the creatures from the black lagoon these are like horrible people.

Talking about murder and all this crap…So that’s what has been helping me the most is living a real life and then the voices can just kind of go on the back burner. I have to do my visual exercises: I have to talk to people… ‘cause these voices will try to drag me off to La-la Land…

After the whole time of being out and talking to everybody then when I get home I go right to my chores… and these voices they just don’t matter at all! Haha! They just don’t matter!

Nice!

I can’t stay inside and just stay inside because it’ll just eat my brain away…

So what kind of treatment do you get from people?

…A lot of people are really, really nice and going to Natas for coffee and treat me awesome and give me change and are really good people.

And then there is the odd – like, sometimes, it’s kind of irritating but sometimes a truck will drive by and they’ll roll down their window and they’ll scream “get a job” at me.

It really pisses me off me too. And then I have to bitch at myself, I have to bitch out loud for about five minutes over those comments because of the voices and disability that’s making me not be able to work.

It’s not like I have a degree or anything, I’m just a scrubber. That’s the only job I can get. Cut the lawn, you know, mop the floor, dust the store. Just cleaning, cleaning basically. That’s my only skill.

So have you had any run-ins with the police?

No, they’re really good… They just say hi to me. At the very beginning like back five years ago when I’d just started when they’d come down the street they’d grill me a little bit like, “What are you doing? What is this for?”

And I’d tell them about the voices and everything, and that I was collecting change, I’m being a good person, I’m not biting anybody, I don’t say anything mean to people. I think I’m not rude.

So they got to know and they’re just good with it… You have to be a little bit…They got guns, eh? So…haha! You say a little bit but you’re just wearing cotton clothes so when the gun goes by you’re still like “whoo! gun!” haha!

Yeah! So what’s your philosophy on life?

When I was a kid, I was kind of in foster care with Hi Ho Silver there. My philosophy to life right now is I’m zoned into the restaurant scene…

When I was a kid, I was a kid, I was just born, I didn’t know anything about money, I didn’t have savings, I didn’t have a house, I didn’t have any personal belongings hardly…

Now that I’m 35 and I have some money and I’m older and smarter and I have a lot more things, things that belong to me in my apartment.

Basically it’s trying to serve that drink with the fire going and the dusting done and the music and the TV. Yeah. Like when I was young, when I was like 12, the house that I was living in – my mother was gone out of town, she used to beat up my sister, and the whole house was condemned. It got tore down.

And it was just a pit of crap and that’s where these voices that’re bugging me…they’re attacking me with this pit of crap. And that’s what I was born in was this pit of crap…

My mother’s a really dirty person and she beat up my sister, anyways, she was gone ever since I was 12 she was gone never one Christmas or nothing and then my grandparents died five years ago and she came to the funeral and she hadn’t been seen in five years!…

It was like she kind of walked back in but she didn’t? But you can’t forget that she beat up her kids and she didn’t actually live with them while they grew up…

So I was born in this dirty house and I had to escape, I had to phone the police…My grandparents were so clean and then my mom was a dirty pig and then I got born into my mom’s dirty pig house and I escape and I have to clean everything.

Maybe if you’re just born into a really clean house, maybe you just don’t give a shit about it or something and you keep your house dirty…

Then if you have a dirty house when you’re born and you escape, it just makes you want to clean… That’s what I like to do. That’s my thing. I got a set of oil paints for Christmas.

Oh nice!

Yeah yeah, I’m sleeping on the fact, I’m sleeping on what painting I’m actually going to make…

What advice would you give to a young person who’s scared they can’t make ends meet?

I’d tell them to… use the shelter… Go to the shelter, go to government funding, but the best would be to go to the shelter.

I was in the youth shelter, I went to the YES shelter when I was 25. The secretary there was just amazing and got me on Peterborough Housing.

I was pregnant at the time and they fast-tracked me and I got into Peterborough Housing in two weeks!…

But I hear people on the street and they’re like “Ah! Peterborough Housing, I’ve been on that list for four years and they still don’t phone me!”…

Anyways, there’s programs out there. When you’re young you don’t even know…you have to dig around.