Only five percent of America’s homeless live on the streets. The rest stay out of sight, away from the glare of the public, living in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs. Some struggle on the edge of homelessness. Others live with their families, usually the last step before the streets.
When I photograph the dispossessed, some react with anger, others hide their faces – out of embarrassment, resentment, or other, concealed reasons. Some strike a pose, others ask to be paid, and some dissemble, hiding their honest feelings. Many easily engage with me when I approach them with respect and a sincere interest.
The few willing to talk candidly say they often feel like animals in the zoo, watching passersby stare at them. One man told me most strangers work hard to ignore his existence, maybe wishing he would simply go away, become invisible.
Those disasters are all too possible for the majority of us; many of us live only a layoff or a medical event away from losing our home or family. We can lose our dignity and self-respect for any of the above reasons at any time. That is how many of us find ourselves on the street, sharing common desperations.
Why do the visible homeless, the dispossessed, live and make a living on the streets? Those who have studied this issue cite a litany of reasons someone might find themselves without a place to call home, such as mental illness, loan default, job loss, divorce, a death in the family that removed a means of support, physical illness, or excessive medical bills.
The homeless, like most of us, want to live and love in a safe and stable environment a good meal, a warm bed with a roof over it, and friends to share their lives. They want respect for who they are and the dignity to hold their heads up.
Hopefully, these photographs will help us understand the similarities between ourselves and the homeless and treat them with the same respect and dignity we demand for ourselves and our neighbors.
“These pictures do not ask you to ‘help’ these people,
but something much more difficult;
to be briefly and intensely aware of their existence,
an existence as real and significant as your own.”
Nicole, “The Never Smile Queen.” sits on her throne at the corner of Yerba Buena Lane and Market St in San Francisco. She appears to hold court with all her possessions in bags near her feet. She discusses her many jobs as a cubicle rat, an escort, a waitress, and others I cannot recall.
Her friends say she never smiles. As I walk away she lifts her head and smiles.
My third post on January 20, 2017 will cover my approach to photographing the homeless.