Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Shaking Hands with and Listening to Those Homeless

by Al Griffin

During the Dust Bowl era Margaret Bourke-White collaborated with Erskine Caldwell on a collection of very powerful images depicting the faces of the poor, the hungry, the destitute in the American South. She called it You Have Seen Their Faces.

I too have focused my camera on the faces of those at the bottom rung of the American ladder; they are the homeless.  Through my street portraits of these men and women, I show them as just people--not a problem, not a cause, not a spokesperson. They are all just people--just like me, you and people everywhere.

I sit on the curbs and the park benches, shake hands, ask them what they think, how they are doing. When they realize that I see them as a fellow human with thoughts and feelings, they open up and talk like any other two people would chat. I give them a small sitting fee if I take their picture and seek them out later to give them copies of their portraits. I have become friends with many of them and spend an hour or two several times a year just sitting and passing the time as any two friends would do to catch up.

In Atticus' Shoes has been about that which is best in our humanity, that which is best in our nature and in our culture. With Atticus Finch’s simple and kind philosophy as the springboard, Connye has celebrated the human experience through those that we call hero and our discourse, both civil and uncivil. The homeless are often forgotten or mischaracterized in that discourse.

From the best of our natures to the worst of our natures, we are all just human. And I try to show those without shelter as just human. At the core, we are all just alike. Only our circumstances differ, and any one of us could find ourselves on that bottom rung at some time.

Connye asked me to be a guest contributor here, and I am very pleased to do so.  As the weekly posts develop, I hope to explain what I do and why I do it, how I do it and why it matters to me. I thank you, Connye, for the opportunity.

Petrece and Stephan
Petrece and Stephan have been living on the street for over twenty years as a loving couple, proving life goes on even in the most meager of circumstances. I visited with them on the square in downtown Springfield, Missouri. They have camped in the woods at the edge of town for over a decade, according to them. 

Cheerful and outgoing, they talked about how they get by day to day, about walking into town to find food and other necessities. They laughed and joked with each other as I took their picture, and it was clear the fact they were together made every other thing in their day tolerable. 

In mid-May, in Springfield, Missouri again, I had the opportunity to kneel on the sidewalk in front of a restaurant and talk to a homeless man while we waited on the ambulance to arrive. He had entered the business seeking help because of dizziness and chest pains. I volunteered to wait with him until emergency services arrived. 

Kenneth said he was born in Missouri, but spent most of his adult life on the west coast living on the streets. He returned to Springfield six years ago attempting to find his family, but he’s never located any relative here. I asked Kenneth how he lost his arm. He fell and broke his elbow last year and because of his circumstances, long term rehab after surgery was not an option so the surgeons removed it.  

The manager of the restaurant reported that Kenneth came in a lot and was an alcoholic. Kenneth may have just wanted to enter the system to get some meds and some food at the ER. What I do know is that for that half hour, Kenneth and I talked about his life on the street and his search for family in his home state. We were just two men chatting on the sidewalk and Kenneth responded with a friendly smile and focused on something important to him beyond the daily search for food and shelter.

Recognition of our basic humanity, being treated as an equal, being seen as someone with thoughts and opinions and feelings, makes each of us better in that moment and maybe better for the rest of the day. I believe these are more important than a few dollars handed out the car window; more important than our “pity” and may be more important than one of our “solutions” to the homeless problem.