Living on the Streethttps://i2.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/lots1.jpg?fit=1920%2C1284&ssl=119201284Jim RossJim Rosshttps://i2.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Jim-Ross.png?fit=96%2C94&ssl=1
Issue No.12: “Living on the Street”
I had a dream about taking intermittent photos to capture the exact moment people slip into homelessness. The researcher in me would call this a time series. In the dream, I was trying to see how these moments of slipping in are different from other moments. The problem was, most people made numerous false starts, or false stops, as they slipped out of being homed and into being homeless. And it was often unclear, did a person I saw living on the street count as homed or homeless? Was there an in between? Were there stages?
In my dream, as I took pictures from moment to moment, I saw that many people became homeless and homed again as easily as most of us slide into and out of slippers. I wondered, when they start living on the street, do they come to think of themselves differently? Do they develop a new sense of community or do they end up feeling even more isolated? Do they find a sense of welcome or rejection on the street that they didn’t have when homed?
That dream reflected a question I’ve often asked over the past decade. The photographer in me is asking the researcher in me: how can we capture images that allow us to better understand the transition people go through as their life conditions push them out of homes and onto the street? I’m unaware of researchers or photographers who have tried to describe this transition. I’ve been talking with homeless people for a decade about their life transitions, but any attempt to capture the moment-to-moment transitions people go through, in words of images, might never get past the dream stage.
I started talking with people living on the street as I finished a long pilgrimage, living on the fly, carrying my life on my back, having no idea where I’d spend the night. I stopped one night and talked with two homeless women, a mother and daughter, roughly 30 and 60 years old. I saw no scraps of food, no shopping or trash bags, no collection cup, plate, bowl, or box; no sign to explain who they were and why they were there. They didn’t reach out to passersby and ask for handouts. It became clear, their reason for standing on the street, upright, almost like statues, was to send a message to anyone who stopped to talk: this could happen to anyone, it could happen to you.
The two women confirmed they had college degrees and had enjoyed life’s pleasures but, they said, “something had happened and we lost everything except what you see in this shopping cart.” The cart was stuffed with small suitcases, carry-ons, backpacks, and water bottles varying in size and fullness. After nearly two hours, I said, “The nights are already cold and winter is coming. What will you do?” The daughter said, “We’ll see.” I asked, “How will you get out of this situation?” She answered, “Maybe we won’t.” When I pressed, she said, “It’s much easier to slip into homelessness than to extract yourself and get back to any kind of life.”
Finally, the daughter said, “People stop and talk with us because they have a need. Why did you come back to talk with us? Why did you stay? What is your need?” I fumbled for an answer. My first was, “I saw your face.” They shook their heads. I said I’d been away from home and wanted someone to talk to. The shook that off too. The best I came up with was, “I can feel your ‘maybe we won’t.’”
Since then, I’ve continued talking with people living on the street. I’ve written about these encounters too. Over and over, I was talking with people who once had stable lives and careers, who somehow, due to economic, social, or legal disruption, lost everything. In one case, the unofficial mayor of a homeless camp was talking with me as a man in uniform walked up behind her. I wondered, Are we about to get arrested and, if so, for doing what? The man then said, “Hi, Mom. I thought maybe you’d like some lunch.”
In waking life, I keep taking pictures and listening to stories of people living on the street. In my dream, one man slips out and in, and something sticks, a calling, a business—he feeds people, in a restaurant of his own, newly old, where the people come, the ones he met on the street, who fill the place. I wonder in my dream, Will he slip out again because he welcomes and feeds them? Or somehow will his newfound sense of community that transcends slipping in and out give him the strength to survive?
I still think about the question that the two homeless women asked me, ending with, “What is your need?” I think I—and perhaps we—keep answering such questions by the pictures we take, the words we write, and the dreams we have about why we care.
The photos seen here were taken in North America and in Europe, in several countries. The languages may be different, but the questions are the same.
Jim Ross jumped into creative pursuits in 2015 after leaving public health research. With a graduate degree from Howard University, he’s since published nonfiction, poetry, and photography in over 140 journals and anthologies in North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. Publications include Columbia Journal, Ilanot Review, Lunch Ticket, MAKE, The Atlantic, The Manchester Review, and Typehouse. Recent photo essays include Barren, Kestrel, Litro, New World Writing, So It Goes, and Wordpeace. A nonfiction piece led to a role in a high-profile documentary limited series to be broadcast over U.S. and international networks. Jim and his wife—parents of two health professionals on the front line and grandparents of five preschoolers—split their time between city and mountains.