Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Homeless in New York City: A Neighbor Who Loves Her Dog

Walking on a busy New York City sidewalk late at night, I noticed a woman sitting with a sign asking for any help possible. I attempted to speak to her, but she did not seem able to communicate well at that moment. Her dog slept beside her on a layer of newspapers she had spread out for the dog’s comfort. As I watched a stream of people walk by, I couldn’t help but notice that the woman was leaning against a trash container, over full with large sacks of garbage setting on the sidewalk near the woman and her backpack. The image struck me as the all-too familiar human refuse sitting with the other items to be discarded.

Margaret Bourke-White’s iconic images of poverty and displacement in the Great Depression and Dust Bowl era became the collection You Have Seen Their Faces as she documented the social upheavals in American culture of the period. Studying these images, learning and finding lessons in the economic history of the period, and applying our understanding to the present and future for our culture and country are important tasks. But the first and simplest task is to recognize and respond to the humanity that we all share.

If everyone who walked on by had given her a dollar, it may not have helped with the root cause of her homelessness. But everyone walking by could smile and say hello. Everyone could recognize the universal and shared condition of our common bond. We are all just people, more alike than different. We are all subject to the same doubts and fears and desires, the same pain and the same pleasure.

Sitting on the hard New York City sidewalk with the garbage, cold and alone and hungry, she first tried to make her sole companion more comfortable than she made herself. And that is what we do in our houses and mansions and palaces. We take care of those that matter to us. We are all just alike at the core and each of us should matter to the other.

Words and Images by Al Griffin

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Helping Hands Homeless Shelter, Camdenton, MO

Ron Estep

Growing from an idea in the basement of a local pastor’s home, to the Graceland New Testament Church basement, and into an old resort on the West edge of Camdenton, the Helping Hands Homeless Shelter, Inc. led by a Board of Directors, Ron Estep and his wife, Kathy Estep, Shelter Administrator Lisa Masoner, and Assistant Manager, Patricia Wieter, has created opportunity for thousands over the years. The day I toured the facility, I met several men and women struggling with the same problems we all face in our day-to-day lives. Anyone is capable of falling into unrelenting hardship, and anyone is capable of making a bad choice and suffering great consequence, but everyone is capable of correcting that mistake and climbing back on top with a helping hand.

The Thrift Store, One Source of Funding

Words and Images by Al Griffin

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Home is a Shopping Cart on the Streets

I visited with Alphonso more than most of the men and women I met on the street. He never drifted far from the place I found him the first time we met. I often stopped if I saw an empty parking place near his spot. He quickly recognized my car and would smile broadly when he saw me.

Alphonso kept an old desk chair in the little alcove of the front door at The Lunch Box CafĂ© on West Reno in Oklahoma City and spent almost every day sitting and watching the street pass in front of him. He kept his personal belongings in an old, rusty grocery cart with black plastic stretched snuggly over the top. 

Usually Alphonso waxed philosophical and talked at length when answering simple questions about his well-being. Living on the street for most of his 80-something years, both as an itinerate worker and a homeless person, he had seen and thought deeply on many of the issues we all ponder.

When my parents grew older, they often said they just slept better in their own beds, and they did not like to travel so far they had to spend the night in a strange room.  In the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey’s father talked about how it runs deep in each of us that we desire our own home and hearth, and George Carlin did an entire stand-up routine about “our stuff” and the importance of what we own and keep near us all our lives.

After a lifetime living on the street, Alphonso announced to me he was getting too old to live that life and must find a place of his own. He seemed shy to ask, but requested I take a picture of him with his “stuff” so he would always remember how it was living on the street.

No matter what our circumstances, no matter what our station in life, our own place, our own home, gives us a sense of security and belonging. I think the things we choose to keep around us, the things we tend to hold close, give us a sense of who we are. As much as Alphonso wanted off the street and under his own roof, even more so, he wished to recall that grocery cart full of his stuff and remember who he was when he lived on the street.

Words and Images by Al Griffin

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Homeless in Oklahoma City, OK: Jim

I first met Jim when I found him busking on a downtown street corner. Finding a parking place, I walked backed to his corner and watched daytime crowd ebb and flow in front of him.

Sitting on the sidewalk, leaning back against the steel box that housed the traffic signal controls, he played an improvisational piece on his wooden flute.  People stopped to listen, some tapping a foot in time with the riff, others smiling and then moving on down the sidewalk. When the crowd had all left and we were alone, I sat down and asked him about his music and his life.

Jim was talkative and very animated, waving his hand about as he spoke. I asked if he ever used a sign or played on the corners of the highway at intersections. He said no, he was more of a traditionalist; he just turned his cap upside down on the ground in front of him and the people dropped their money into the hat.

These images are from our first encounter
where he played his flute which hung
from his neck on a piece of leather. 
Over the course of several months I found Jim around town often. Through a lot of conversations, I leaned Jim is a veteran and spent much time in the Northwest doing whatever labor he could find. For a long stretch, he had a wonderful female companion while doing farm work, but life and times se them adrift, each held by different currents. He still misses her company and comfort, he says.

Jim often talked about the characters he met on the road and in the homeless camps. Some good, some bad and some indifferent; he found a few that were truly evil. and he tried to stay as far from them as possible.

The last time I talked to Jim,
he was carrying his old Army duffle bag
and sitting on a bench at the Crystal Bridge
in downtown Oklahoma City.
Jim told some awful tales about men who would prey on other homeless people, days living on nothing to eat and days when someone stole what little he had. Jim told of a time he fell in with some truly bad men near Seattle and was afraid for his life till he got away from them. 

Even living a life few of us could imagine, Jim seems to be at peace with himself and with the world. I always enjoyed my time with him, listening to his tales of the road.  He helped me put my life into perspective when I reflected on how I might have handled his circumstances.

Human perseverance and the will to make the best of our lot shines through in some people and it did in Jim.

Words and Images by Al Griffin