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Faces of Homelessness
Portraits by Jeffrey A. Wolin
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As a photographer, much of my work deals with individuals who have experienced trauma in their lives.
I have engaged in long-term portrait series of Holocaust survivors (Written in Memory : Portraits of the Holocaust) ; American and Vietnamese War Veterans (Inconvenient Stories & From All Sides) ; and more recently, Pigeon Hill : Then & Now, which pairs portraits I made of people residing in Bloomington’s housing projects between 1987-1991 with portraits of the same folks made between 2011-2016. In all three series I interview the individuals and include their own words with the portraits. This strategy allows audiences to directly connect faces with stories.
Homelessness is a worldwide problem. Living in downtown Chicago, I am confronted with it every day as I go about my daily life. I see so many different faces, each with a unique and compelling story about how they wound up on the streets requesting money from strangers. Our society is moving in the direction of shredding the social safety net, which will make the lives of our most vulnerable fellow-citizens that much harder.
I know I can just wander around the streets and photograph, but given the sensitive nature of this subject, I’ve decided it’s best to work with non-profit organizations that deal with homelessness every day. To this end, I’ve been working with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which has helped me identify individuals to photograph and interview. I’ve learned from CCH and other organizations that homelessness takes many more forms than just living on the streets and that many other factors besides mental illness and drug/alcohol addiction are causes for this problem.
People live doubled up with friends or family (it is estimated that 18,000 kids in Chicago Public Schools are homeless) ; in short or long-term shelters ; in hospitals or SRO’s (Single Room Occupancy hotels). There are homeless veterans ; individuals and families who were evicted when their residences were foreclosed on ; people who had sudden and serious medical expenses that insurance didn’t cover, wiping out their life savings. Job loss, divorce, death of a spouse, domestic violence, lack of affordable housing all drive homelessness. There are working poor who live in tents or their vehicles because housing near their workplace is unaffordable. It is essential that I cover as wide a range of individuals as possible in order to tell a more accurate story.
Along these lines, I’ve begun expanding to include homelessness in Los Angeles as representative of some of the unique issues facing the homeless on the west coast. To that end I’ve been working with Safe Place for Youth and Venice Community Housing to help me identify individuals. I’ve also begun to explore the issue of rural homelessness, which is, yet again, somewhat different than what we see in large urban areas.
My hope is that my photo/text images can contribute to the public conversation about the causes and possible solutions to some of the difficult issues surrounding homelessness and to gain more understanding of this large but rather vulnerable community.
Andon Kostov at the Boulevard homeless shelter for medical recovery
I escaped from Bulgaria on Friday 13, 1985 (?).I was a political refugee. When I escaped, the communists were still in power. People disappeared. I was afraid I would disappear too, so I run. A cousin of mine moved from Bulgaria to Chicago. They found me and I came to Chicago.
I got a job in construction. I had a problem with my lungs and started slowing down. I have COPD, arthritis and back pain. I didn’t have the means to see a doctor. I came home one day after work and found all my possessions in the alley—I had fallen behind on my rent. I became homeless.
Our neighbors were selling drugs. I reported them but instead of the housing authority kicking them out, they told the neighbors I reported them and I started getting death threats. I wasn’t safe ; they attacked my husband, harassed our kids. We went to a shelter and decided to relocate to Chicago.
Charlene Daniels, 2/17/75
I became homeless about 5 years ago. I’m a hillbilly. I lived in a small town in Tennessee where everyone was kin to me. My mom never did like me. I wanted to come to Venice because I knew my family wouldn’t come here. You have to watch it—the gangs and stuff. I’m here with my husband. I’ve had my dog, Sadie Mae, for a year. Got her for my birthday.
I live in a tent behind Gold’s Gym. This is the only place that can fit all my art stuff and clothes. I like decorating and drawing. What the cops don’t take I manage to keep. I’m waiting for my Section 8 voucher. I want to get off the streets like everyone else. The shelters split couples up. No pets.
We stay at the Lincoln Inn for almost a week after I get my Social Security check. The rest goes to food. We try to keep an eye on everyone. Help them out with food. Everyone comes to me. We give them snacks, money if they need it. When me and Laz have no money I’ll panhandle. I tell people exactly what I’ll use it for—I won’t lie.
It’s not fun to have people look at you like they do. One time I was just walking when a man called me “garbage.” I was really depressed.
It’s dangerous on the streets It’ll drain everything inside of you.
C., born 7/13/1983(?), NY
I had a job soldering pinball machines. I was a vocalist in New York. I sang in church choir and passed my first audition. I didn’t study music ; you don’t always have to. I liked school and books and studying. I miss the music and nightlife. I became homeless months ago. I live outside. It’s harsh but peaceful. Our current political climate makes homelessness harder and harder for people to understand and sympathize with. It’s easier to castigate and find disdain. Living outside in nature is harsh but nature’s forces will not judge you.
David Ernest Busch, b. 1955, Homeless Activist in Venice Beach
After working as an auto and bus mechanic for 20 years, 10 as a union mechanic, I returned to writing. I worked in the family business until it failed in 1992. I was 37. I started living in my car. 80% of my meals the past 20 years have come from dumpsters in part because I refuse to take money from the government because conservatives are always accusing poor people of taking handouts. So I only eat food that society throws away. I also organize 4 different “Food Not Bombs” collectives. They are a global anarchist movement. When I was a working class bus mechanic and a typical American consumer, I would go to a market and buy foods advertisers wanted us to eat and my health was not good. I wasn’t eating nutritious food and my budget didn’t allow me to buy more nutritious organic foods wealthy people could afford. But as a homeless person, I discovered eating from dumpsters of wealthy people’s markets like Whole Foods was healthier than the food marketed to the average American.
Janine Perez, born 9/21/1971, Harwood Heights, Illinois
I first became homeless when my mother died ; then my dog died. My stepdad is an alcoholic ; he’s evil. I’m a Certified Nurse’s Assistant. I told him to bring my mom to the nursing home where I worked, but he wouldn’t. She had diabetes, always helped me with money. When she died I couldn’t go back to her house, which was my grandparent’s home. I left my boyfriend—he cheated on me. I got a new job as Certified Nurse’s Assistant at Harmony Healthcare at Pulaski and Foster. The residents are elderly.
I met my fiancé last January. He knew people here in the tent city. We got here in the spring. We were living in my truck near my job in Niles. During the polar vortex we had to run the engine to keep warm until it ran out of gas. We had a lot of blankets ; had to cuddle up together. It was brutal. I’m not going to stay out here next winter. My plan is to rent an apartment and get out of tent city. I want to come home to a nice warm place.
Maxica Williams Stage 3 Cancer Survivor
Three years ago I had a double mastectomy and 16 nodes removed from my left arm. I had 6 months of chemotherapy. I was in the process of buying a house but had to use the money for my chemo. During that time I cared for my kids, took them to school each day.
I’ll graduate in May 2019 with a degree in Business Administration and then go on for my Masters. I want to work with homeless and cancer survivors to help them deal with their problems and to pay back what people did for me.
Melodi Serna, born 10/10/1977, Chicago
I was a Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class in the U.S. Navy. I was a 5th generation veteran. My great-great-grandfather served in “Big Red One” in WWI. He was from Belleport, ND, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Tribe. He wasn’t considered a citizen. Citizenship wasn’t granted to Native Americans until 1924. My great aunt was a WAC in WWII. My great uncle served in Vietnam. I served at the tail end of Desert Storm/Desert Shield. I served in a conflict zone in Haiti in 1998. I was sexually assaulted by another corpsman at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego after being roofied. I was taken back to my room. The rape kit is pretty invasive. Everyone on the base started pointing at me—“She’s a liar ! She deserved it !” I convinced them to transfer me to another base. There was an altercation at a bar and I was wrongfully charged. I was convicted and received an “other than honorable” discharge. The Innocence Project intervened and I got out in 1½ years. I got pregnant with my first son right after I got home. I stayed in San Diego 6 years after that. My husband was an abusive drunk ; tried to kill me. I moved back to Chicago in 2006. I got into another abusive relationship. Since 2008 we’ve had small bouts of homelessness. I wound up staying with my abusive boyfriend. When we were homeless we stayed doubled up with friends and family. When I couldn’t stay with friends I’d call my ex and ask for help with rent, food, rides. I know I shouldn’t have called him—he beat me, stalked me ; tried to kill me. I had no choice. My kids have special needs and need therapy. I finally got into the VA system last year. We got a place through Volunteers of America. I go to job fairs looking for work in management. I ran a salon. I’m also a licensed phlebotomist. I do volunteer work at my kids’ schools. I volunteer for Homeless Veterans in America Foundation. I can work from home. I don’t need a dollar, I need a job.
Robert Henderson at a Chicago Housing Authority Senior Residence
After prison I dealt crack cocaine for 5 years. I got hooked—thought I could break away from it, but I couldn’t. It was just a matter of time before I lost everything. I’d ride the train all night, or stay at O’Hare Airport or in parks, depending on the weather. I didn’t like the shelters.
I was a bodyguard for a street chief. He thought I was cheating him on the dope money and shot me in the head but I survived. That’s when I started to turn my life around. You ain’t gonna beat them streets—sooner or later they’re gonna catch up with you.
I still had an addiction issue at first but nine years ago I checked myself into a treatment center at Salvation Army. I’ve been clean for 9 years.
Thomas Gordon, Mayor of Uptown Tent City
First time I was homeless I was 14 years old. I was kicked out of the house. There were 7 of us kids—I was the oldest. My dad died when I was 6, my mom when I was 12.
I’d heard about Uptown Tent City and I wanted to totally get involved ; got a propane stove and tank and I started cooking for the community. Set up a storage tent to keep things for survival purposes. There were about 25 of us under Lawrence viaduct and about 20 under Wilson.
I got elected mayor of Tent City. I’m homeless but I’m happy. I’m doing what I enjoy doing : helping people.
Vincent DiGaetano, born 2/6/1969, Brooklyn, NY
I left New York when 9/11 happened. I wanted to see America. Went from NY to Vegas, started painting on the walls there with Magic Markers. A friend suggested I come to Venice Beach. I’ve drawn my whole life. Got into tattoos. Started to paint here in Venice. An oil painter on the boardwalk taught me painting techniques. I learned different techniques from different artists who shared brush strokes. I’ve slept everywhere from alleys to parking garages to sidewalks. I’ve stayed on friends’ sofas. The community takes care of me. They look at me as a resident who lives outside. Homeless has become a dirty word. It should be a hate crime to use that word. I don’t like the stereotype ; we’re not all the same. I’m not a shitty homeless person. I’m an artist. I’ve earned that right. I have my art supplies and my bass guitar and that’s it. I don’t have piles of stuff. I’m not a hoarder. My work is fun. I like a certain depth of texture. I get canvasses donated and I just paint over them. I paint a lot of clowns. They scare the shit out of kids. Scared me when I was a kid. I sold a big painting the other day and a leather trench coat that I painted a mural of clowns on. If I had my own place I’d fill every square inch with murals because that’s what my life is : one big painting.
Cover : Ali Al-Hassan 10/18/1984
I been trying to figure out myself. I researched best places to be homeless. I said, “I’ll go to Venice.” I was contemplating living in an RV. On October 6, 2017, my cousin died—he was 18 years old, a swimmer. He died in practice.*
After his death I came here to figure out who I wanna be while doing what I love, which is working with my physical intelligence or gift and try to cultivate my emotional intelligence. I’m trying as hard as I can to be a better human being.
*I had my own business in Pittsburgh—prepackaged healthy foods. I booked a one-way ticket to LAX. From the time I made the decision until the flight was 6 hours. Left my house, left my business. I wanted to find myself. I’m doing what I love—working out. Researching, reading. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations means a lot to me. He was emperor of Rome who let go of everything. The idea of stoicism. To live minimally.
I’m living in a van that I rent. When I came here I challenged myself to stop social media. It’s over a year. I use the public library and read articles. I take challenges on food—I fast for 24-48 hours. Just coffee, water, cigarettes. I still have a house in Pennsylvania. I’m still in touch with my family. My brother is a PhD electrical engineer. My mom visited last year from Saudi Arabia. They came to Pennsylvania and she had a panic attack. They bought me a ticket. I went to Pennsylvania for 10 days. My mom didn’t judge me and said, “I hope you find yourself.”
Don’t judge people. You don’t know their story. Everyone is on their own journey.