The Homeless Stereotype
On my two-day journey, I talked with several homeless men and women and asked them to tell me their stories. Some were unwilling, but some agreed to answer my questions and to be photographed. I tried my best to ask questions without assumption; instead of assuming that they were lazy and had never worked, I asked them to name the best jobs they’d ever had. Instead of assuming they’d been disowned, I asked if they had any kids and had ever been married. I asked where they were originally from, and if they still kept in contact with their families.
I asked the right questions. Many of the people I talked to were not homeless because of substance abuse or a history of violence; rather, they were homeless because of unfortunate things that they could not control. And I understood that these things happen, because they’ve happened to me.
There was Paul. I found him sitting next to a building on the sidewalk. Paul says he’s been on the streets for less than a month, and he really doesn’t consider himself to be homeless, though he had nowhere to go. Paul went through a bad divorce and his ex-wife got the house and was getting a nice chunk of his paycheck. He suffered depression and had trouble concentrating at his job, which he ultimately lost.
There was Juan. I found Juan not far from Paul, sitting down, writing. Juan’s best job was at the Mercedes-Benz plant. Juan had just been hired at Mercedes-Benz and was on his way to work from Birmingham when he was in a car accident that totaled his car and injured him. He didn’t have anyone to take him back and forth to work every day and he wasn’t in the position to buy another vehicle; soon, he was unable to afford rent. There was no family for him to turn to. Juan receives disability checks to his P.O. Box, but it’s just not enough for him to afford a good place to live. So he manages his money well enough to eat every day and pay for his P.O. Box, and he just survives on the street. Sometimes, he is able to get a motel room for a night or two when it’s cold.
There was the trio walking together, wearing cool clothes. Melvin was from Washington, and Luke and Jessie were from Montana. They also had a well-trained dog, whose name was Bella. They traveled here by train cart. Melvin was a forklift driver, Luke was a chef, and Jessie was a carny. Jessie talks to her mother once or twice a month—she says it’s not that her mom doesn’t want to help her. She just can’t.
I talked to several more people during my two-day project, and my questions about the homeless were answered. It’s true that substance abuse contributes to some people ending up on the streets, but that’s not always the case. These people have all kinds of stories: divorce, injury, unexpected job loss, lack of family support. It’s all there. The people I spoke with were very intelligent, capable human beings. Most have adapted to the homeless lifestyle and are happy; many have found a community on the streets, like the painter who isn’t homeless anymore but still hangs out with his old friends, who are. During this project, I ran into groups that provided food, clothing, and even a live DJ for music for those without homes. I once thought downtown Birmingham was empty on Sundays, but I was wrong. It was something special to watch one lady dance to the music with a smile on her face, as she held a pair of jeans to her waist to see if they would fit.
The project changed me—I understand now that there’s so much to these people than the stereotypes that have been thrust upon them. They are real people with real stories, and this is what they look like.
I wonder if they ever saw themselves in the magazine? - Eric Dejuan