Concrete Tales uses the power of storytelling to promote healing and restore dignity

Est. Reading Time: 5 minutes

A new initiative at 541 Eatery & Exchange creates a safe space for folks who are unhoused to share their stories and become better storytellers

Stories are powerful tools. They can shape, heal or challenge people in unexpected ways and help us better understand ourselves and others. At 541 Eatery & Exchange, a not-for-profit charity café, a new storytelling circle, Concrete Tales, is helping to instill this powerful tool in its community.  

The premise of 541 Eatery & Exchange lies in the vision that all people deserve access to food and should be able to choose what they want to eat. Their goal is to provide an opportunity for people to help their community by paying it forward through its button system and making sure everyone has access to good food. They also hope to provide a sense of dignity and respect that is too often stripped away from those who are stigmatized in society, such as those who are unhoused or dealing with addictions.  

“541 Eatery & Exchange is a beautiful way for people, who have more resources, to come and see and interact with people who are actually very, very strong and resilient—people who have lived on the streets and have seen and experienced tough, tough things—and see them for who they really are,” said Carmen Cooper, staff at 541 Eatery & Exchange and organizer of Concrete Tales.  

Concrete Tales is the latest initiative at 541 Eatery & Exchange funded by Keeping Six, an organization focused on harm reduction in Hamilton. Its first session was held on Nov. 18 at the café and it will continue to occur every Friday from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. with dinner provided. Every week, one of the facilitators or guest speakers will exchange stories — some personal, some folk tales — of resilience and strength.  

Cooper came up with the idea of starting a storytelling group and then later recruited facilitators to help run the sessions, including Carl Lambert whom she got to know through 541 Eatery & Exchange. Both their connections to the café and its mission run deep and long.  

Cooper started working at the eatery four years ago but has been part of its family for a long time as a volunteer. She was drawn to this space by the sense of integrity, dignity and inclusivity offered by its community and while working here, she was able to learn the stories of folks who have had very difficult experiences and found herself healing and growing through listening to their stories. Concrete Tales came about because she wanted to extend this opportunity to others in the community and provide a dedicated safe space for folks to share stories. 

“Because I’ve been [working] here for four years, in some ways, I have earned the privilege and honour of getting to know some people who have had very hard lives and because I myself found healing and growing through storytelling, I wanted to offer that opportunity to other people,” said Cooper.  

Because I’ve been [working] here for four years, in some ways, I have earned the privilege and honour of getting to know some people who have had very hard lives and because I myself found healing and growing through storytelling, I wanted to offer that opportunity to other people.

Carmen Cooper, staff at 541 Eatery & Exchange

Lambert is a long-time customer at 541 Eatery & Exchange and someone with lived experiences of being unhoused. Coming to the café for the past 6 years has been helpful for him in dealing with his addictions and getting a chance to socialize with the local community.  

“[541 Eatery & Exchange] has been a wonderful place for me in terms of dealing with my addictions and re-socializing with people,” said Lambert.  

Despite Concrete Tales being a fresh and new initiative, the response from the attendees has been powerful and encouraging. At the first session, the group established rules of engagement, such as respect, trust and how they use a piece of concrete as the talking stick. It was crucial to establish these rules as soon as possible to emphasize the fact it is a safe space where people accept each other and can feel comfortable offloading their experiences and personal struggles.  

During the first session, Cooper also shared an African folktale to ease the group into storytelling before delving into too personal stories which can be tragic and triggering for some folks. As the closing remark, she read a poem followed by a moment of silence for reflection which she hopes will be a tradition the group will continue every week. Afterwards, many folks shared they were looking forward to coming back for more and showed enthusiasm for future events.  

“Everyone said they are coming back . . . [And] the community at large is supportive of [Concrete Tales] too as well as the [attendees]. It’s wonderful,” said Lambert.  

Looking further ahead to where the group would like to take these sorties and conversations. In February 2023, they hope to facilitate an 8-week workshop to teach folks how to develop their own stories, including proper structure, body language and effective delivery. At the end of the workshop, they will host a debut event for all the storytellers to share with the general public.  

Teaching people, especially those who are unhoused, how to be strong storytellers is important in Lambert and Cooper’s perspectives because it is an essential skill and can be therapeutic and dignifying. 

“Let’s say something happens and you’ve got to talk to a banker, you've got to talk to a cop, you’ve got to talk to a fireman about [how] your kid [fell] into the water — it's a story and the more effective you can do it, especially as a street person who tends to lose those social skills, it’s huge . . . Also, it’s therapeutic,” said Lambert. 

“I think that the idea that even though you’ve lived a difficult life, [knowing] that you matter, your story matters — like there is substance there — it dignifies your life which I think is rare,” said Cooper.  

Additionally, by sharing these stories, they hope to help the community unlearn harmful stigmas against people who are unhoused, such as that they are on the streets because they are lazy.  

“I think the assumption is always like, "Oh, they are just so lazy, not hard working, drug addicts and have loose morals." There are reasons for these things . . . So far from the people that came [on Nov. 18], I think there’s an eagerness to be heard. They just need an audience; they need people to listen,” said Cooper.  

I think there’s an eagerness to be heard. They just need an audience; they need people to listen.

Carmen Cooper, staff at 541 Eatery & Exchange

To support Concrete Tales and initiatives alike, they encourage people to support community organizations like Keeping Six. Anyone can also attend future Concrete Tales events by emailing [email protected] to reserve a spot and learn to develop their own stories. Additionally, 541 Eatery & Exchange is currently looking for socks and gloves donations.  

Everyone is closer to being unhoused than they think. Currently, extraordinary stories are being shared at Concrete Tales to destigmatize street people and normalize experiences of tragedy and hardship. Even if it is not at Concrete Tales, reflect on your narrative and try listening to someone else’s story to learn the power of storytelling and gain a new perspective.  


  • Subin Park

    Subin is in her fourth year in the Health Science program. She has been part of the student journalism scene since high school and is excited to share stories about arts & culture on campus and in the broader Hamilton community. Outside of The Sil, she can be spotted shopping at vintage markets, watching reality TV or in line for coffee.

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