The Stairs: an unflinching look at George Brown’s neighbours

Film a humanizing portrayal of drug use and harm reduction in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood


For those in search of an honest, unflinching look at drug use and harm reduction, The Stairs is required viewing.

Screened at George Brown earlier in the year, the film is primarily centred on three long-time Regent Park residents, Marty Thompson, Roxanne Smith and Greg Bell.

Filmed over the span of five years, it follows these individuals over the course of their everyday lives, drug use and all. According to director Hugh Gibson, part of the impetus was making a film that would change the conversation around drug use and street involvement.

To the film’s credit, The Stairs allows its subjects to tell their stories in their own words. The result is an often gripping affair. When Smith speaks about her history as a sex worker and having 30 seconds to decide if a person is going to take her life, there are no punches pulled.

But by seeking to define its subjects as people, rather than by their drug use or history, the film never feels exploitative. With its naked portrayal of harm reduction, The Stairs makes a compelling case for meeting service users where they are, even for something as simple as injection kits.

“It’s not about what works in the grand spectrum of things,” Smith said at the screening. “It’s about what works for the person in front of you right now.”

Despite the film’s heavy subject matter, The Stairs has a remarkable sense of humour. This is thanks to the charm and quirks of the cast’s personalities, and their natural wit gives the documentary balance throughout the film.

“For people who haven’t had the lived experience of street drug use, peer work and harm reduction work, to be able to show people as complete, legitimate, brilliant, resilient human beings who do not have to have a clean journey from one place to another…is crucial,” said Griffin Epstein, a professor with George Brown’s school of social and community services.

Their stories are juxtaposed with extended shots of development and urban renewal. While these shots are never directly commented upon, the questions they raise of responsibility and displacement are particularly relevant given George Brown’s location.

“We’re really close to Regent Park, and that is currently undergoing significant urban renewal, neighbourhood change and gentrification that we’re implicated in just by being present,” said Epstein.

While there is certainly risk in The Stairs‘ individualized portrayals, its humanizing approach is a lesson in the inherent dignity of people.

“Take away that homelessness, take away the smell, the looks and everything else and just say, ‘Hi, how’re you doing? Good morning,'” Thompson advised those without lived experience. “Take it from there.”

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The Stairs: an unflinching look at George Brown’s neighbours