Several years ago, I found myself sliding down a slippery river embankment into a hidden homeless camp. Three unleashed, anxious dogs waited at the camp entrance while a man on the far side of camp sat with an ax on his lap and a paintball gun at his feet. This was my first time visiting a homeless camp. I was more than a little nervous and wondered if Angela (founder of SOAR, an organization supporting the homeless and their animals), my guide into the invisible world of the homeless, knew what she was doing.
She came with medications for the dogs, bus passes so the camp residents could find work, frank questions about the addictions that are too often present in the camps,
and knowledge as to how to navigate city and state social services. I came with my camera, decades of homeless stereotypes, and a desire to understand and photograph the hidden world of the homeless. Angela, who has been visiting homeless camps for years, was in her element, comfortably chatting with the owner of the three dogs and asking who else lived in the camp. I was wondering if the joke ending in “I just need to be faster than you” was still valid when there were three dogs and a man with an ax.
We survived that trip and the many more over the next three years—visiting camps, abandoned houses, broken-down vehicles, and the occasional flea-infested home overrun with cats.
I grew up as a privileged white guy in the Philadelphia suburbs. The only homeless people I ever encountered were the outcasts on the streets of Philly as I drove to my private college, a few off-ramp beggars, and the guy in New York City who cleaned my headlights with a dirty rag, then limped to my driver-side window with his hand out. Thank God for electric door locks. My mom would tell me about the students who were dragged from their cars by the homeless—yes, Mom, I’ll be careful. My grandma warned me to be mindful of the Eskimos when I spent a few post-college weeks traveling through Canada. Homeless and Eskimos—we fear what we don’t know.
I have since discovered the world of the homeless where the inhabitants, even while in plain sight, are invisible because they make us uncomfortable. A simple act of saying hello and asking about their dogs, their lives, and their plans brings out individuals whom I discover have families somewhere, may have gone to college, love to talk about their kids, and have lives that are real. I feel just as comfortable sitting on a dirty sidewalk or an old log in a homeless camp as I do sitting at Starbucks.
It has been said that a good photograph tells its own story. I will spend many hours, sometimes days, working on a single photo. I will write and rewrite the story of their lives as I remember them from our time together. The chance to find and tell about the meaning in the lives of people who society has forgotten is tantalizing. The thought that an invisible world exists just outside of society’s vision makes me want to explore. I now look for signs of a homeless camp wherever I go—paths into wooded riverbanks, piles of trash at the edge of an unused lot, abandoned shopping carts.
I will end with a quote from Angela Hopson of SOAR, one of the finest people I know.
“You can’t serve a community you’re not comfortable in.”
We all have invisible communities just within our reach and talents that will appear when needed. I found comfort when I let my stereotypes and misconceptions go.