Empathy is essential to solving the problem of homelessness. Our purpose is to put the humanity of unsheltered people in a new light…the light of black and white portraits that are made with collaboration and care to illuminate our shared humanity. By broadcasting these striking portraits and personal stories, we hope to disrupt the negative stereotype of homelessness and inspire a compassionate community of people who will advocate for solutions in their communities around the world.
Maria and Rafael lived on South Beaudry for two years in a tent city. Neighbors watched out for each other, cooked meals together, took turns sweeping down the sidewalk. It felt like home – until the city bulldozed the entire community, tore up their tent and trashed most of their belongings. That night Maria and Rafael slept out on the sidewalk with only a thin blanket to cover them, utterly defeated. But the next day they regained their fighting spirit, showered and washed what few clothes they had left at a nearby shelter, and went out looking for a new life, a new tent and a new place to live. -Ed Freeman
John Steinbeck’s first paragraph in his novel, Cannery Row is, in my mind, the best in American literature…
“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.”
As you may recall, the story follows Mack’s boys, a group of homeless men who commandeer a warehouse in Cannery Row and become part of the community. Through their adventures, we see that they are in fact ‘whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches’ as well as ‘saints and angels and martyrs and holymen’. They are victims of America’s great depression.
Mack’s boys are in Cannery Row again…victims of the great recession.
Even though I live a short walk from Cannery Row, I hadn’t read the novel in over 40 years. A reminder of the richness of that novel came from an unlikely source. I was trying to get a good portrait of Kevin and not happy with his mask. He was stern and standoffish. Finally, I put the camera down and told him I wanted to let the studio lights cool for a few minutes.
I asked him where he grew up and he described a hardscrabble childhood in a fishing village near Seattle. I asked what brought him to Monterey and he answered firmly, “Steinbeck”.
“As in ‘John Steinbeck’?” I asked incredulously.
“Yeah, John Steinbeck brought me here. I always loved his novels, particularly Cannery Row, and said I would move to Monterey if I ever had the chance. I was a telephone operator in Seattle and a job opened up in Santa Cruz. So, I moved here. But soon after, the phone companies laid off operators and then the recession hit. I couldn’t find anything. I lost my apartment and then my car and then my insurance. I’ve been homeless for four years. So, I came here because I loved Cannery Row and, somehow, I got trapped in the novel. I’m now one of Mack’s boys and I can’t get out”.
“Wow!”, I said, “that’s sounds like a Woody Allen Movie”.
For the first time he laughed and I followed with a grin. Finally, I saw who he was and grabbed my camera before the mask returned to his face. I hit the shutter release but the camera had timed out and shut off. Without thinking, I pulled out my camera phone and fired it off. The flash on my phone set off the studio lights. I got the portrait by a fraction of a second…because the face disappeared and the mask was back when I looked up.
I saw, just for a moment, another Kevin through the another peephole. Here he is…a bright, thoughtful man with a taste for good literature and a great sense of humor. Steinbeck was right. We are all…everything.
Out of the Depths..
Reed was homeless for six years beginning in 2012. When I first met him at an IHELP gathering in 2014, he was in his second year of six years of homelessness. Today, he has a business and lives with three roommates in Carmel. So, it’s a story with a happy ending… and, a story that probably answers a lot of questions about how people become homeless and how hard it is to recover. Each situation is different. Homelessness is not always alcohol, drugs, or mental illness as the stereotype dictates.
I photograph a lot of homeless people who have none of those problems. They simply dropped out of a modest life, through one or two events or misjudgements, and into a place that’s hard to recover from. A liveable wage in Monterey County is at least twice the minimum wage. If you can’t make at least $20-$30 per hour full time with benefits, you are likely to become homeless.
A new report from Prosperity Now found that 40% of American households are “liquid asset poor,” meaning that they don’t have enough money put away to make ends meet at the poverty level should their income be suddenly interrupted. That figure jumps to 57% for households of color.
Reed was born and grew up on the Monterey Peninsula in a middle class family. He wasn’t ambitious, but he did alright in high school and spent a few years in college. His dilemma as he grew up was that he was secretly struggling with homosexuality at a time when there was little tolerance or support. He thinks that may have affected his confidence.
He worked as the courtesy driver at a large auto dealer. In 2011, he took a vacation with his partner. While driving through Wyoming, his partner had a terrible accident and was killed. Reed survived the accident but was unconscious for days and in hospitals and rehab facilities for months.
When he arrived back in Seaside, he had lost his job. The recession was in full force. He couldn’t find work. With no money, he lost his insurance and his apartment. He was in severe depression from the loss of his boyfriend and his penniless condition. He was three years from qualifying for social security and five years from qualifying for Medicare.
Fortunately, he and his family had been members of St Mary’s Episcopal Church which is very active in supporting IHELP and a fund for homeless women. The church referred him to IHELP. He was able to get a hot meal and a safe place to sleep on the floor every night. Gradually, his grieving subsided and he began to look for work. There was nothing. He was a professional driver without a car and no other specialized skill.
He was elated when he finally qualified for social security, but that was only enough for food and incidentals. Then, the Affordable Care Act went into effect and he was able to see doctors and start treatment for some illnesses that had gone untreated for years. He started to feel better and became more energetic.
Some elderly couples, who came to know Reed through IHELP, hired him to drive them to appointments. They had cars, but were no longer confident about driving. Reed would take a bus to their homes, drive the couple out and back and then take a bus to the next church he was to sleep in.
A retired executive saw his portrait and heard his story and offered to help. They came up with business cards and fliers that Reed distributed to hospitals, churches and life care facilities. He increased his pricing. His business grew. He got a license to drive a small bus. He got more work.
A big unexpected break…
Then, one of his clients died and willed him her car. It was old, but it made it possible to get from one client to the other quickly. He found a rare rooming situation in Carmel.
Today, Reed is in full bloom. He bought a new car. He’s bright, happy and driving the bus for both the IHELP men and women’s programs…as well as his own clients. He’s an inspiration to homeless men and women who now see him as a model for recovery.
He says, “Attitude is everything! Just never give up!”
“So, you’re the photographer!”
It was my fourth night at an IHELP dinner at our church. I had been coming monthly to make portraits of any of the homeless men who volunteered and I had completed the first ten images and distributed them. I joined at the end of the supper line so that I could get some food and sit with the men. It was a good way to banter with those I’d already worked with and introduce the project to others.
‘I hadn’t met the man in front of me in line. He spun around as I walked up behind him and said, somewhat aggressively, “So, you’re the photographer!” Because of the tone, I somewhat tentatively stammered, “Yeah”.
Again, aggressively, “You know what they’re saying about you, don’t you?”
“No…what are they saying about me?”
“They’re saying it’s good luck to have a portrait taken by you!”
“Really? Why’s that?”
“Didn’t you notice?”
“That six of the first ten people you shot have found a job and a place to live. They’re not in the program any more.”
I looked around and didn’t see a few of those familiar faces. I immediately felt trapped. If those men found jobs and housing, it had nothing to do with me and I didn’t want an expectation like that on my shoulders.
“Well”, I said, quickly, “that’s a coincidence.”
“No”, he argued, “It’s not a coincidence!”
“Hmm…are they using the portraits to apply for jobs and housing?”
“No, it’s not that either.”
Now, he changed the look on his face and I got that his tone was mock anger.
“Well, you seem to know what’s going on…what do you think it is?”
He paused and thought a moment. “That museum quality print that you give them…it has an impact. When they get into their sleeping bags at night, they put that picture under the pillow. When they wake up, they look at the picture rather than looking in the mirror. They say, ‘Hey, you’re a good looking guy! You deserve a job! You deserve a place to live!’ And with that new attitude, they go out and get a job. Six out of of ten! That’s three times the normal recovery rate! And, that’s why I want you to take my picture tonight!”
The power of self esteem
I was stunned. I said “Sure” but I was still trying to absorb this profound and beautifully articulated wisdom from a man I had clearly stereotyped as homeless, male and latino. I expected nothing from him, and in less than a minute, got the most important ‘ahah!’ of the “Inherent Worth and Dignity” project. A portrait… that sees past the mask and toward some more affectionate facet of the soul… is inspiring to the man and the people around him. Self-esteem goes up. I wouldn’t try to prove cause and effect, but the IHELP monitor says that over 50% of the 104 men I’ve photographed have recovered over the past 5 years….three times the normal rate.
This is the portrait that Carlos and I made for him…and, sure enough, he had an income and a place to live two weeks later. Thanks, Carlos…
I’m not a therapist!
Someone who saw the “Inherent Worth and Dignity” exhibit at Art Intersection in Gilbert, AZ asked if I could move the exhibit to City Hall in Toronto, Canada. I agreed and we began planning. As part of the deal, he asked if I would be willing to be the keynote speaker at a Canadian association of therapists annual conference in Toronto that was to be held while I was there.
I was puzzled. “Why? I’m not a therapist!”, I asked. Some of the therapists had seen my portraits in our “Inherent Worth and Dignity” book and found them compelling. They wanted to know how long it took for me to get the men to drop the ‘mask’…the mask that protects our vulnerability…and reveal a more authentic and affectionate face. I was stunned by the question. “Well”, I said, “about 20 minutes”. It turns out that it takes a lot longer for therapists to get to that point of vulnerability…sometimes weeks of hourly meetings.
They were interested in what I was doing to get that intimacy so quickly.
It took a few weeks of deeper reflection to come up with an answer. I wrote the speech. I never gave it. The Toronto invitation was withdrawn when the Mayoral election became contentious. The exhibit was to have been in Toronto City Hall with the Mayor sponsoring the events. Homelessness had become a front and center issue in Toronto and the exhibit was to foster a better dialogue on the issues.
The speech highlighted an idea that emerged out of work I do with high tech and science executives to develop more empathy and personal warmth. I point out to them that a major driver of relationships revolves around how you see status. If you look at the community you live or work in, you are aware of what value each person brings. You have a sense, as with a deck of cards, that there are people of low value and people of high value…”2″ through “King” if you leave aside the confusing value of aces and jokers for a moment.
It’s about how you handle status
Homeless people are mostly seen as “2’s”…draining value… and key money makers or policy makers are seen as royalty…queens and kings. You can’t help but see that status structure no matter how much you don’t like the idea of status in society. But, it’s a tragic mistake to treat people differently because of their status. Value to the community is a rank order, but value in the eyes of god or in the eyes of the universe is a constant. You have to choose which order you deploy as you interact with people.
The ‘Golden Rule’ rules
Nearly every major religion and philosophy has been advocating the “Golden Rule” for over 2,400 years…since the Axial Age. “Treat other people they way you want to be treated”. It’s a foundational principle. We don’t like people who weaponize status. We don’t like people who abuse, even micro-abuse, below them. We don’t like people who suck up to those above them. Social justice is the moral of almost every story.
So, what am I doing? I’m carrying myself like a “10”. I’m not royalty, but I don’t need to project false humility either. And, no matter what the status of the people I encounter, I see past the status and treat them like a “10”. I don’t suck up to the big dogs and I don’t ignore those who are struggling. I try to give equal time, equal attention, equal curiosity, and equal affection regardless of value to society.
I don’t always succeed of course. I get in my own way with the daily barrage of distractions, misplaced priorities, and personal insecurities…but, when I have a camera in my hand, I’m so focused and in the moment. A camera, in the hands of a portrait photographer is a licence to look at another person without the normal social constraints. I can stare. I can look for beauty. I can look for pain. I can comment on the client’s features. I can direct. I can get enthusiastic…even euphoric about what I’m seeing emerge. It’s contagious. The subject feels it and emerges more…and I get more vocal…until we see yet another facet of the soul. Click! It’s a dance.
There, but for the grace of god, go I
After taking the first 15 color snapshots of homeless men for a church fundraiser for IHELP, a good friend, Barbara Bullock Wilson, suggested I put up an exhibit. I winced because the photos weren’t that good. She said to look at them again. I did. They were still amateurish. She said the portraits had shifted her response toward homelessness from one of sympathy to one of empathy. I looked again, and she was right. In the portraits, the men looked like the rest of us. We could relate to them. Instead of feeling sorry for them, our first response is “There but for the grace of god go I”.
As soon as Barbara said that, I thought of the inherent worth and dignity of the portraits Dorothea Lange made during the depression. I also thought of the importance of the lighting and texture of Karsh’s black and white portraits of the most famous people of the last century. I immediately knew I wanted to do the portraits again in black and white with studio lighting…but with the worth and dignity of Lang’s images.
I had no experience with portraiture or studio lighting. My wife, Sharon, gave me a basic portable studio for Christmas a month later and I showed up at an IHELP dinner with a carload of boxes and not a clue of how to use what was in them.
The journey begins…
Over dinner, I told the men that I wanted to shoot again more formally and they agreed. By then we had a strong relationship. I explained I had no experience with this kind of photography and that it would be trial and error. They didn’t care. They cleared the table and unloaded the car. They helped set up the equipment. One of the men, a new guy, began directing us. “That’s a light stand put it over there. That’s a strobe, put it on the light stand with an umbrella.”
“Chris”, I said, “you seem to know what your doing. Did you work for a studio photographer?”
“No”, he whispered, “I have a Masters in Fine Art Photography from Rensselaer Polytech. I know…you want to know what I’m doing here…don’t ask.” I didn’t. Chris asked what I wanted the portraits to look like and I told him…between Lange and Karsh. He liked the idea and gave me a three hour workshop on studio portrait photography with an eye toward Karsh like lighting.
Chris saved me six months of trial and error. He was gone from the program before I could give him a copy of his portrait. Three years later, I saw him at a coffee shop working on his laptop. He’s now COO of an animation company in Denver and has joint custody of his son. He said the IHELP program saved his life.