We see the homeless on the street everyday. Though the average American is only about one to three paychecks away from being in their shoes, we seem to choose to ignore them. We look the other way when we pass them on the street. Sometimes there is the person who will hand a couple of bucks to a guy sitting on the corner with a "Will Work For Food" sign, but thats as far as they go. We never take the chance to KNOW them, to hear their story. We don't find a way to connect or relate to them. As a result, we often just don't see them as ONE of us. Not just not part of society, but almost not a part of Humanity. The goal of my series is to HUMANIZE those we choose not to see. Through intimate portraits and telling of their stories, I hope to connect the viewer to these people and make them real in our eyes. When you look someone in the face and hear their story, you can't pretend they aren't there anymore.
Through this I have experienced many things. I have cried. I have laughed. I have been embarrassed by myself and society. I have found wisdom from unexpected people. I have been shocked. I have felt despair. I have felt hope.
But most off all I have looked into the eyes of those that used to be strangers and made a connection. And through it, I have been changed forever....
PAUL, AGE 54
I listened to Paul, and thought about how if my son had been born the same time as Paul he could have had the same kind of fate as Paul. My son, just like Paul, has Tourettes Syndrome. Tourrettes is a neurological disorder that causes the individual to have TICS. These are vocal sounds or words and arm, hand and head movements. It is totally uncontrollable by the individual, but completely cosmetic. Meaning, they don't effect the persons mental ability. In truth, most with Tourrettes have Way above average intelligence. I quickly find that this is something Paul has in common with my son. As I listen to him talk about the inner working of the brain and Dopamine production, firing of synapses and various things like that...I realize this man is brilliant. I watch his eyes, so intelligent, as he tells me his story. Unfortunately for Paul, he was born at the wrong time. At 10 years old, with his tourettes tics and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, friends and family thought he had major mental issues. They didn't know what to do with him. He endured much teasing, but he got pas that. But in his twenties he found it impossible to keep a job. Wherever he worked people just didn't understand. Co-workers and customers alike would complain about the "Mentally Disturbed" employee until he would be fired. His doctor's answer was to overly medicate him with anti-psychotics, to eliminate the tics...but turning him into a vegetable. Eventually, by the age of 25, the state considered him unable to "work" and put him on state disability. After that, he lived on and off the streets, unable to really get by. I sat and chatted Paul for a couple of hours. He was bright and funny, but also had a huge sadness that weighed over him. I think the down size of his brightness is the fact that he is so acutely aware of how his life could have been different, and he has a bitterness about it. I walk away thinking how my son will have such a different life...
PRESTON, AGE 59
It was a Beautiful warm day, and I spent over an hour sitting with Preston and his two dogs under a tree in the park. I have to say, Preston is one of the most amazing people I have ever met. Not because of where he came from and how he got to where he is today, but because of WHO he is today. His story is actually pretty simple...he was a Roughneck from the age twenty on. He worked oil rigs around the country. Very hard and VERY dangerous work. Over the 30 years he worked oil rigs he watched friends hurt or even killed on the job. Though experienced and a very hard worker, when he hit the age of fifty he found he just couldn't get hired anymore. There were too many twenty year olds out there who were stronger, fitter, more endurance and with less experience, Cheaper. So after 30 years away from home, he came back to Sacramento to live with his sister in a house that belonged to his parents. After a lot of family drama, Preston said Screw It, I'll be happier living in the park. And that's what he did. Preston is unlike a lot of the homeless I've met. He had a very Zen Buddhist way about him. He talked (very clearly and articulately) about how happy he was. People are wasteful, he tells me. They WANT too much, and are seldom happy. "You find happiness within, not from things" he tells me, as he puts a bookmark in his book and sets it down. I said it must be tough, though...not knowing when you will eat, and when you will be hungry. He looked at me and smiled and told me there is an ABUNDANCE of things on the street. People are wasteful, he tells me. They buy too much, then throw it away. He say anyone who lives on the street and says they are starving is either lying or lazy. He finds food everywhere, people throw away tons of food, still in packages. BUT...I say...when the police arrest you for sleeping in the park, don't they throw away all your stuff? Your sleeping bag, and blankets and stuff (and BOOKS)? Doesn't it take you a long time to gather that all back up. He smiled again, and gently shook his head. Sean, you aren't listening to me. Their is an ABUNDANCE of thing out there. It takes me a day to find new blankets and sleeping backs. A day to find new books to read. And if I don't find something that day, I'm just not meant to have it. Wow. I start to see preston differently. Like this amazing buddhist monk, sitting atop a mountain. He is so happy, by choice. He spends most his day reading books. He says he reads about a book every 2 to 3 days. I sat there against the tree, one of Preston's dogs laying its head in my lap...listening to this gentle poet speak. I am moved by him, and in no hurry to depart his company. Finally I stand, and he gives me strong hug...finally we break and he holds my shoulders at arms length. "Life is an ABUNDANCE, Sean. Remember that, and you will find Happiness everywhere, and in everything." I spend the rest of my day on a complete high, amazed by life itself.
ALVIN, AGE UNKNOWN
"I'm a Drunk, Sean"
Alvin tells me this in one of his moments of clarity. I've tried to figure out how old he his...so far my only clue being that he joined the Army somewhere around the fifties (said he did a little time in Korea during the war) He only spent a few years in the Army before finally being kicked out for Drunk and Disorderly Conduct. He has spent his life fighting a losing battle with alcoholism. What strikes me is his frankness. He doesn't attempt excuses. He doesn't blame anyone but himself. He is very direct with me that he has spent his life a drunk. He has checked himself into many clinics over his life, trying to clean up..but always ends up the same. During our long talk, we discuss that I was in the Marine Corps. He looks at me and asks if I fought in Korea. I chuckled at first, telling him that was sixty years ago..then he looks me dead in the eye and said..right..Vietnam. I stop short when I realize how serious he is. The years of drinking have so affected him. I put my hand on his shoulder, and asked Alvin if he knew what year it was. He looked confused for a second, then shook his head. 78? 64? 72? He responds... I gave Alvin a hug, and five dollars for lunch, and walked away. I felt sad when I looked back at him...watching him shake his head, confused, trying to make sense of our conversation.
TAZ, AGE 59
Taz comes across as a very kind and gentle man. He smiles a lot, and laughs easily. He is actually married to "Mama", a lady who lives on the street and I've interviewed before. What is very interesting is when you talk to someone...and get them to open up, asking questions that lead deeper and deeper, you sometimes are shocked at what you find. What I knew about Taz before I ever met him, was that along with "Mama", he takes care of many young people who live on the street. He looks out for them, making sure they get food and have somewhere to sleep. He is kind and protective. I ask about how long he has lived on the street. Since he was 25. Wow, I say...24 years on the street..thats a long time. I ask how did he come to live on the street at 24, and he said he never found a place after he got out of prison. Hmm....I think..there is more to this. Prison? What did you go in for? For the first time his smile is gone, and he looks at the ground. He says something I can't hear...then says again, Murder. I'm taken back for a moment, shocked. He looks up at me, and smiles...but there is NO smile in his eyes, which are sad. He tells me his story: "My parents were bikers, as were all their friends. I was sixteen one night when I came home to find my Mother being raped by one of my dad's friends. He was a huge, fat, nasty thing..like 400 lbs or something. He didn't hear or see me. I stood there for a couple of minutes, then went to my parents room. I grabbed my dad's .45 from his drawer (he had a bunch of guns around the house, and they were always loaded) and walked back to the living room. I put the gun to his head and fired. I emptied the rest of the 8 rounds into him as he fell. I looked at him on the ground, moving around, and went to the kitchen and grabbed a 9mm from a drawer. That held 16 rounds, plus one in the chamber. I put all 17 into him. I then went back to my parent's room...grabbed a .357 revolver and emptied all 6 rounds into his face, while he lay dead on the floor. 32 rounds I put into that fucker. I was Tried in court as an adult, and given a life sentence. After 9 years out on parole." When he stops talking I snap a couple pictures, at this moment of his greatest vulnerability. When I look at the picture later I am struck by the look on his face. He smiled for the camera, but there was no smile in those haunting eyes of his...
SCOTT, AGE 26
Scott can't look me in the eye when we talk. At some point, while talking to me and looking down, he tells me he's a little "Pensive" I guess what I mean, he says, is I like to think about what I'm going to say before I say it. Pensive, I think, is a great way to describe him, though not for him thinking before speaking. He looks side to side constantly, uncomfortable talking to me. He only looks up a couple of times and as a result I end up with a lot of pictures of him looking down. He tells me a bit of his story, moving around from place to place. I try to understand who he is and why he is here, but I get no where with his story. We are only talking for about 5 minutes when he quickly says that he has to go do something real quick, but promises he will be right back. He jumps up and RUNS down the street and turns the corner. I set there for a second, a little dazed and confused...trying to decide if he really was coming back. After sitting for another 15 minutes, I realize he's not. Pensive I think, and chuckle.
RICHARD, AGE 37
Richard was the first that day to make me cry. He heard that I was out on the street doing interviews and paying $5 dollars, so he said he "ran" right over. Rolled, is the truth. Richard is a paraplegic. In fact, besides his torso and back being paralyzed, he has no legs at all. I find out that Richard stays in his wheel chair 24 hours a day, sleeping in at on the street as he has no bed. This has led to "stage 4 bed sores" all the way up his back. He is in terrible pain, wincing constantly. I was thinking this was something he had dealt with a long time when he tells me it's only been about 7 years. He was thirty years old, driving home from Stockton one night. He was going down a small highway when he fell asleep at the wheel. His car rolled about a dozen times, but by a miracle he wasn't hurt. He was thrown out of the car onto the highway. He managed to crawl away from his car when another car coming the other way on the freeway, not seeing him in the darkness, hit him and ran him over. He lost both legs and was paralyzed. I ask if he gets disability checks and he tells me not yet. I'm shocked. It took him a year to get approved for disability to start with (go figure, maybe they thought he would grow his legs back) and by then he was homeless. Unfortunately the State requires that someone have a home address to mail the checks to, so he has yet to receive any. He tells me what he really needs is a new cushion for his chair, the one he has is thin and killing him. He's a little angry at the world, and I think about how I would be too. To have everything taken away like that. Despite the fact that he reeks of urine (he has two bags of urine from his catheters hanging off his wheel chair), I lean down and give Richard a hug. I give him $20 and walk away.
CHANCE, AGE 19
I've lived on the street my whole live, Chance tells me. I have a moment where I think...yeah..ok...you're 19. How long is THAT?? I find out. His father went to prison when he was 2, and he was raised by his mother. When he was 9, she had enough and left out on her own. That left Chance at the age of 9, living on the streets of Houston, TX. 9 years old and living on the street. But he said it all worked out...that's where he met his "Family". Gang, is what he meant. He joined a gang at the age of 9, and they looked out for him. Gangs aren't all about fighting, killing and drugs and stuff, he tries to tell me. It's about family to love and protect you. To take care of you. They were there when I needed someone. But, I say...they DO have a lot of that stuff, too, right? (Drugs, violence) Yeah, he says...we have that. He's been in Sacramento for a little less then a year. He's trying to make it on his own..with out the gangs. But he said he was thinking of going back. I think about Taz, and his life on the street. Will that be Chance, 25 years from now? Is there another way. He took the $5 I gave him for the picture, stuck his cigarette in his mouth, and spun and marched off...
UNKNOWN, AGE UNKNOWN
I see this man on the corner, with two shopping carts. He is moving things from one cart to another...it looks like he is organizing them. The first thing I notice is the smell. He smells rancid. Beyond rancid. I actually have to stand upwind of him as I feel myself start to gag. I ask if I could talk to him a bit. Ok, he says...I guess. I start with simple ones..like what his name is. He looks at me blankly for a minute, then shakes his head. Your name? Umm... I ask him how old he is, and he shakes his head. You don't know, I say. He looks down and said no. How long have you lived on the street, I ask him. Always? He asks me. How about your parents? I don't have any, do I? You must at some point, I tell him. He shakes his head and says...maybe I have a mother somewhere?? Do you remember your mother? No, he says. Do you have ANY idea how old you were, or how long you have lived on the streets? When I was a baby, he asks? I have a moment where I think how this would actually be funny, if it wasn't so sad. There is nothing inside this guy. No mind, no memory. He's like an animal, who can't communicate and can only focus on surviving. I give him $5, reaching it out from a distance. For the first time since doing these interviews I feel shame. Not only can I not bring myself to hug this guy...I can't actually bring myself to shake his hand. I don't even want my hand close to his when he takes the money. I just want to get away from him. I walk away, my mind racing. I think about the times I felt so good about myself...getting to know some of these people on the street...to see them as people, connect with them...and be able to make physical contact with them. But I can't with this guy. I just feel the need to get away, and it makes me feel even worse. After I speak with him, I sit in my car for a long time...thinking about my encounter with him. And not liking how I felt about it.