The reasons people live outside, in tents, under a pile of blankets, on heat grates, are wide ranging. Their stories are as different as their faces and their challenges. One cannot easily “know” them or their stories. But listening and seeing their faces tells us something about them – their similarities and differences, their common experiences, their challenges to emerge from the cycle of not getting anywhere.
Some things about them are similar. They need help acquiring the basics for survival – food, clean water, bathroom facilities and a warm, safe place to sleep. The need for safety is ever conscious – protection of territory, belongings and self. They wanted me to see them favorably. Some refused to be photographed telling me they didn’t look their best that day. Others posed with a big smile or with offers of multiple poses from a smile to “my professional pose.” And they all want to be heard and valued. In Washington, DC, the seat of power, I found the powerless.
I began by sitting with them casually, striking up a conversation. After, I documented the experience noting their statements in quotation marks and including my thoughts and reactions exempt from previous perceptions. Each person was an individual and not a story of all people living on the street. I hoped that photographing them and telling their stories would potentially be a springboard to greater action in the community. That may still be true. But what did happen, happened to me. As I watched their faces and heard what they wanted to tell me, I enjoyed them. Time with people living on the street changed how I felt. I have a greater sense of them as individuals and a better recognition of their dignity. Through this project and the words of those in the photographs, I hope readers might also think of those living on the street differently.
“I have family – a mother, aunts, brothers and we see each other.” Robert’s eyes were encrusted and eyelashes missing. At first his crusted eyes scared me but I moved in closer to hear him better. As I listened to him I became more comfortable and enjoyed our conversation. He didn’t explain why he lived on the street.
“I spent the rest of my money on a bus ticket to Philadelphia.” Micky limped as we walked into Union Station to buy her a cheeseburger. She was wearing a leg brace that she said was from being attacked. She carried her possessions comprised of a broken backpack, a tote bag and empty golf bag. She asked me, “What’s my budget?” Waiting in line to order, I felt people staring, but they did not want to be seen staring at us.
We sat in the dining area so Micky could stay warm while she ate; again people looked at us. While Micky ate, she wanted to know why I was photographing people sleeping outside. Her response to my desire for passersby to see those living on the street as people just like her was a smile. She said, “That’s good ‘cause they don’t.”
“If you come back with twenty bucks next time, you can take a picture of him.” said Kiwanna as she pointed to the gentleman sleeping next to her on the ground. When you sleep under dirty blankets on the pavement, getting any money helps you eat.
While their stories are different, their need for the basic necessities for survival are not. They talk about what they need after telling their plans, their hopes and who or what has let them down. They tell me they are hungry or thirsty; they are cold. I give them hand warmers that last a few hours and money for food.
Ralph and Tawanda
“I don’t have a shirt on under this blanket ‘cause someone took it.” I met Ralph and Tawanda near McDonalds inside Union Station. They too posed. Every time I lifted the camera to my eye, Tawanda would lean in or jump into Ralph’s arms. I think they were enjoying the moment.
“I need work done on my face.” Elizabeth’s nose and face were bruised and she was thin. She kept tugging at her hat. Her possessions included a walker, an extra pair of shoes and two tote bags with packages of food. She said she “can take a small amount of money from the bank every day; money is a problem.” Someone suggested that she go to Canada, which she is considering. She was easy to talk with and I wanted to find her a blanket.
“No don’t take my picture.” Robert even walked away while I photographed the person next to him seemingly afraid that I might photograph him when he was not looking. I had approached him because of the neat appearance of his cart of belongings. He had been in DC for a couple of years after leaving Maine where he said the cold “was dangerous.” He wanted to know what kind of camera I had and was surprised when it was not a Nikon or Canon.
“Everything I have is in this backpack; it’s gotten real heavy.” Hal was new to the area, only two months, coming here from New Jersey near NYC. Sitting next to Robert, he joined our conversation on how dangerous some areas are; that was his experience in New Jersey. He carried his possessions in the one backpack for mobility but also has a tent on K Street where he goes at night. He is never certain that it will still be there when he comes back.
“I sleep here because it is too hard to carry all of my things to another place.” Katherine told me that she didn’t look her best and did not want to be photographed. Indeed she had quite a large area in the same place where I have seen her before. She was most proud of the tarp she found as it blocked the wind and keeps her warm at night. There are some people she could trust to watch her stuff while she goes inside to use the bathroom or get food. We talked about trust and how important it is; she was grateful for the few friends she had there. She remembered my name from a few weeks ago saying that her childhood friend had the same name.
As we walked into Union Station so I could buy her a cup of coffee, she told me about growing up in a rural area in the Midwest where she and Leslie rode horses. She lost track of Leslie and her own siblings saying “it is just too hard to keep up.” I kept thinking as we were walking and talking how easy and comfortable our conversation was and how articulate she is. I was not even aware if others were staring.