Interview with John Clapp, Wychwood Open Door

Wychwood Open Door streetview

The Wychwood Open Door is located just around the corner from the Barns. Its mission is to reduce social isolation, boost nutrition and help develop life skills among homeless and socially isolated people. John Clapp, a former client, is a board member. He has been selling tickets for their annual fundraiser at the The Stop Wychwood Farmer’s market for the past three weeks. I dropped in to chat with him this Monday morning.

Wychwood Open Door entrance

How do the people around us having breakfast this morning typify the Wychwood Drop In community?

You have a guy there who clearly, given his affectations I guess, has mental health issues. And I’m not one to talk–we all have them to one degree or another; there’s a lot of addiction issues here, myself included.

Is it largely men?

It’s largely men but some women too. I think women get more support services than men do. Women tend to also be a little less anti-social I think.

They’re therefore less stigmatized?

Stigmatization is bad all the way around but some people leave themselves more vulnerable by their behaviour.

Their appearance also I guess.

Yes, and women tend to care about their appearance more. They have more support services and they have families. Women tend to be more conditioned socially.

Wychwood Open Door flyersondoor

Someone, a woman friend who has come here to eat and volunteer was once a little disdainful—she said the men looked like they didn’t really want to work.

That’s not totally inaccurate but it’s a case of capacity as with everything in reality. It may seem like they can work but some of these guys don’t have what it takes. I no longer have what it takes to hold down a job, my back is gone. I have untreated neurological issues that have gone untreated for so long that now it’s just damage control. No hope of reconditioning.

Wychwood Open Door food 7

You sound like you’re 60 or something. May I ask your age?

I’m 49.

And you’ve thrown in the towel?

No but I’m recognizing facts that are obstacles. It’s like my overbite. I have an overbite that should have been treated when I was twelve, it’s a structural thing and now no matter what work I get done it’s too late to change things. Human neuro-biology is very similar. The greater part of the configuration of our neuro-biology, the neural pathways are set early on.  Relatively speaking, human offspring are born younger than other mammals. Even though we are more cerebral than other mammals, they are born with more developed brains. So much of the important neurobiological development happens in early childhood through conditioning. If you come from an abusive background, if that ‘s not countered…  and I don’t like the word disorder, in fact all a disorder really is,  is a neurobiological configuration that is incompatibly adapted with a given social environment. Now within the environment within which the neurobiology of that person develops, it’s quite compatible.

Wychwood Open Door napkin note brain

If you look at it through the model of evolutionary adaptation: Our early human ancestors on the plains of Africa, those that weren’t too obsessed with getting food were the ones that noticed predators. I have severe ADHD. In a threatening environment what we would consider to be a disorder is actually what saves the individual’s life. It’s quite appropriate within a specific environment but the problem is that people leave those environments, they grow up. In my case I left the Mennonite culture which was my adoptive not my biological environment.

Although I embrace 21st century thinking whole-heartedly there are many aspects of my neurobiology that are incompatibly adapted for this environment Because it wasn’t the original operating system in which my programs developed—they were quite compatible for a situation of violence. I’ve always had a hard time functioning in normality but tend to be quite calm in crisis.

What makes you particularly well adapted to the role you play here?

I wouldn’t say I’m well adapted. My work here is more an expression of a conscious decision. We all have some options and this is an expression of me exercising one of those options. I live in the area this is my community for as much as I can make it so.

What brought you to or made you choose this community?

Do you remember when I was doing those houses?


I was homeless at the time and that’s when people started getting to know me and I became part of it through that.

Wychwood Open Door napkin map

Give me a brief description of that summer of “Neolithica”.

OK, it was spring but it went through the summer. I was just mucking around killing time.

You had landed in Toronto from somewhere else?

No, no I had been in Toronto for maybe 15 or 16 years at that point and I had just—maybe it’s the Highland Scotch in me but I pulled up roots for a year and ended up at the Name Res with the Ojibwa.  I wasn’t homeless long, not even a year really. Maybe it was just a transitional period and I wasn’t doing anything and I just started playing in the mud.

Where did you get the mud?

Landscapers had left clay and other materials at the back of the Wychwood library, sand etc.  You mix clay and a little bit of sand and then some leaves and you make a kind of mortar. It’s not cement but it has cement like properties and I just did that in typical ADHD fashion, no impulse control no shut-outs just went ahead and did it obsessively.

Neolithic library yard view

Neolithica detail 1

Neolithica detail 3

Neolithica artists statement

There is a sub-cortex of the cerebral cortex whose primary function is to shut down the inappropriate responses that many people with addiction issues and ADHD people have.  So Rob Ford is a good example. He was sober and he still ran over a councillor. His brain just couldn’t shut that urge down. He was sincere I’m sure. Some people differentiate between addiction and passion but I don’t. I think if they’re different they’re different by degree only. For a long time workaholism wasn’t even acknowledged as addictive behaviour it was just considered work ethic, someone’s passionate about their job. I guess I’m in a strangely privileged position being ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program) now and having the time to actually think about some of these things more objectively and to get the kind of context that could only be provided by science.

Wychwood Open Door food 4

Going back to the Spring and Summer of Neolithica how did you get to know the community?

Well the librarians did a little write up in their monthly Toronto Public Library magazine. People came and then a local journalist got a hold the story—that was John Lorinc when he was writing for The Globe and Mail, and then Joe Fiorito who likes to champion social causes… then City TV came… but at that point I was already housed and they were still selling me as a homeless guy. By the time City TV got there it had all been vandalized and then their big spin was “but the homeless man is determined to rebuild” and I thought Oh Jesus! Rebuilding for City TV is as downhill as it gets.


So the vulnerability of Neolithica was that part of what you were interested in?

No I was just doing stuff. Just getting up there and mucking around. That’s what I do.  I’m ADHD and neglected as a child so I’m pretty self-contained, maybe isolated would be a better word.

Was the chance to talk to people part of the fun or are you shy?

No, I have no problems talking to people.

After that, I remember, you did paintings of prehistoric animals and sold them on the street.

John Clapp dino painting 1

By that time I had housing and my room had a sink. I knew everybody wanted me to continue with the houses… but it’s not the ADHD thing to stick to the same thing and I felt it was the time to move on. My joke during that Neolithica thing was—The homeless guy building homes too small to live in. “I’m trying to get it right and eventually I’ll get it right and build a home big enough to live in.”

So you were performing to the media attention.

Well, I guess you have to, that’s part of the PR but that was not a career move for me that’s just mucking around, I barely considered it art even, I was just doing it.

Do you see yourself an artist?

I don’t know, these are just names. I consider myself as a conscious being who expresses himself visually through making things. Many life forms on this planet are biologically compelled to make things like the nests we live in, make shelter. Now being conscious beings we take a look at our reality and living in the 21st century we can take these ideas and express them and I think that’s what keeps us relevant. I don’t think it’s relevant any more just to write or compose a painting, for example, completely within a religious context with no modern commentary. I think that would be irrelevant no matter how well executed.

John Clapp dino painting 2

But what about your prehistoric theme what’s contemporary about it?

At least we know our biology through modern science. It speaks to modern reality, to the fact of evolution which is an ongoing process. There’s speciation happening, observed in nature, new species appearing on this planet and sub-speciation, that’s called micro-evolution. That’s why it’s relevant, because it speaks to the known age of the planet. But these religious ideas are relevant historically, they’re relevant indirectly to truth but they cannot be considered truthful in themselves. They are expressive of a historical truth but they are not expressions of truth.

John Clapp dino painting 2 detail

So we are in a church that’s one of the many churches that dominated Toronto social life a century ago. And to some degree the church has been re-purposed.

It is still a sanctuary. Religion is, in my view, becoming a thing of the past. I think even in the past a big function of churches was for community rather than creed.

So the Wychwood Drop-In continues that legacy?

But I think there are other ways, now we have online communities in which people’s shared values can be reinforced and people can share ideals. And then we have secular community centres so what’s happened is that churches have gradually lost support because people don’t need religion any more.

My sense of community comes out of my increasing knowledge of science. We are a gregarious species, we’re higher primates there are evolutionary pay-offs. One of them I guess is appreciating the rarity of consciousness. On this planet I guess it took 3.9 million years to slowly evolve since from the onset of microbial life. It’s a rare event. It’s measurably precious, demonstrably precious. I did a little version of the Drake Equation: What is the number of planets that could have developed civilizations?  And I would say there may be as many as 250 million but they’re spread out over this galaxy alone. So it’s pretty rare, probable but rare. And that means that every consciousness is precious in life; even those that are profoundly compromised like my own. Like all of ours to some degree. But we, as a species, have to stop throwing it to the wayside.

Wychwood Open Door food 3

Where do you see evidence of this?

Well you know these people are here in part because of things that they have done, sure they have to take ownership of their actions but also in part because of our society, in its planetary isolation, doesn’t recognize that. Their real conscience is ideologically driven or sometimes religiously driven and it is so tiny minded and the parameters are so superficial and small that a vast majority of human beings don’t fit into that and then they’re cast aside because they don’t conform to this very narrow minded interpretation of what it is to be human. And then whatever neurological incapacity a person has becomes amplified and multiplied and they evolve on their own. So I think we have to acknowledge first that consciousness is precious and therefore every human being has a measurable value, a demonstrable value and we also have to acknowledge that there are other ways of being, that there are other species of human on this planet at one time. Something like 13 over the past 2 million years, there are many different ways of being human. I was thinking of ADHD and I think that eventually people like me will be bred out of the human genome.

You were talking to me last Saturday of your desire to give Drop-in clients more of a say in the services or programming?

I’m trying to get a client advisory committee set up. An autonomous committee governed by the clients themselves. They elected me to the board and their job would basically be to tell me what to do but also to nominate any other candidate and blow my ass off the board. And that to me becomes a mechanism through which they can emergently—from the bottom up– apply some political leverage. Also giving them a sense of community within the organization and it’s nice if people from the Wychwood community at large could participate because then that gives them the context that their little community is part of the larger Wychwood community. I might be on the board but I’m not a top-down guy.

Wychwood Open Door napkin org diagram

I orchestrated a democratic coup. It was the last AGM and very much to the head of the board’s dismay I got myself voted on. I tried to get Mike and another guy, Gary to run because I’m not the most suitable candidate. I have addiction issues there’s probably no hope of ever, ever solving those. I’m ADHD, I’m pompous, I’m erratic which I call spontaneous. I don’t show up to the meetings half the time but I do go out to the market on Saturdays to sell tickets for the Trivia Night fundraiser. That’s the ADHD way, because it’s new it’s more interesting. It’s harder for me to sit through a board meeting. I showed up to one meeting drunk. So that tells you… I’m kind of like Rob Ford except there’s a difference 80% of my clients that have addiction issues whereas you can’t say that of 80% of the electorate of Toronto. If that many people were over-eating crack-smoking alcoholics then they might just say, OK then let him keep running the show… if you think democracy is dysfunctional now just wait for a couple of years of that.  But now that I’m on the board I’m in a position to be able to implement some entrenched change and I think I’ll do that with the client advisory committee. Not everyone here will be desirous or capable of participating in that some people just need a place to come, have a meal and be left alone. So we’ll just see what happens. I mean this is an experiment there’s no such things as failed experiments. The hypothesis is that people don’t get a sense of community unless they are empowered.

Wychwood Open door dominoes

What is the role of food in all of this?

Socio-economically marginalized people need to eat. Life is an expression of mass and energy and when we eat we’re converting mass into energy. Human consciousness is an expression of the cerebral cortex which takes 90% of the nutrients that we metabolize that’s how big the investment is. So food’s pretty important.

Wychwood Open Door food 8