Living on the Street

Living on the Street

Living on the Street 1920 1284 Jim Ross

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.


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  • More than half of these photos show people living rough, but with dogs who seem to have picked up in the seeming desperation of their human companions. Why so many dogs?

    • Ha, one answer is that I like dogs. Another is that I have a particular interest in the relationship between people who are homeless and their dogs. I published a piece in the summer issue of Kestrel called “Street Dogs and their Human Companions,” which included eight photos of dogs and people. My photos in Living on the Street give a disproportionate impression of the proportion of street dogs that have homeless people.; and, vice versa, the proportion of homeless people who have dogs. But why do they have dogs at all? The short answer is, in many cases people who are about to become homeless chooses to take their dogs with them. Why should they leave what is often their only source of consistent love behind? In addition, many people once they’re on the street feel lonely and want a companion. Either they find a stray or someone offers them a pup. Having a dog then makes it easier for homed passersby to approach a homeless person because first they feel safe approaching the dog. After petting, feeding, or talking with the dog, they inadvertently begin communicating with the human. And then, a connection is formed, and passerby realize the homeless person they might have maligned is really another caring human being.

  • Jim’s artistic talents make me feel as if I were there in the moment. Always a pleasure to read a piece of his and get lost in his imagery.

  • Great Insight and photos to match, thanks for your contribution

  • Very nice, Jim. Someday we should talk about your hypothesis–the ease of slipping in and out of homelessness and the possible determinants. The selected photos show that dogs and the homeless have important relationships. I wonder at what point(s) in the trajectory of homelessness do those relationships emerge and solidify?

    • Oh, my! Determinants are so complex, some societal, some individual, and to some degree that can vary by location as a function of available housing. I’m just starting to grasp the slipping in and slipping out. Often, people don’t even think of themselves as homeless except after they’ve been homeless a while. Thinking that this is just a temporary thing, I’m okay, I’ll be homed again soon is often reasonable because, in fact, until they found themselves on the street, people had been homed. There are so many types of settings in which people can live once their living situations become tenuous and some of those might resemble a home while others don’t at all. People end up on the street and consider options they wouldn’t have considered before so they slip back out of homelessness again, at least for a while. We should talk after I think about this more. As for the dog question, see my answer below to Jack Murtagh. Thank you.

  • This is profoundly moving. Thank you for sharing your photos and your thoughts on a much-neglected issue.

  • Adrienne C Ricci 01/04/2020 at 2:52 pm

    Your questions and insights as to the cause, existence and possible escape from homelessness are quite thought provoking. It seems almost inevitable today, frighteningly enough. The acceptance of this lifestyle is perturbing. The accompanying photos, in which you have sensitively captured various people’s situations, speak volumes.

    • Thank you. You said that, “The acceptance of this lifestyle is perturbing.” Acceptance by whom? Those who are homeless? or by society at large, by government decision makers, by NIMBYs whose actions and inaction keep people on the street? I’ve mentioned in a piece called Claiming Home, published recently in The Manchester Review, that there’s a portion of the homeless population that chooses to be nomadic and live on the street. However, the overwhelming majority of people who are homeless do not want to be on the street. Still, they often refuse to stay in shelters because they are unsafe for women and they are anything but home. In many parts of the country and in other parts of the world, housing is so scarce and rental rates so high, that it is inevitable that a portion of the population be squeezed out onto the street. It is hard for me to believe that this is acceptable to government decision makers and the people they represent. We voice our priorities moment by moment, dollar by dollar. You see what we’re doing on this and on other fronts. Thank you for reflecting and reacting.

  • Thoughtful article and photos—thank you for focusing on this challenging reality.

  • Margaret Fisher 01/04/2020 at 12:32 pm

    Very thoughtful, Jim.

  • Thanks for sharing…succinct and well written. Nice pictures. Did you ask permission to take photos ? May you use this material to help the homeless.? … a good jumping off point to advocate. Pat

    • Pat, this is the fourth or fifth piece I’ve had come out over the past year related to people who are homeless. And, the third one in a row the involved story and text. My intent always is to contribute to the dialogue, enhance understanding, and promote policies and actions that will alleviate the underlying causes of homelessness. Due to the climate crisis, we’re likely to see even more as a result of massive migration. As for images, technically almost everywhere in the western world we are allowed to take photos of people in public places without asking permission. Having said that, most of the time, I talked whenever possible with the people in these photos. In many of the photos, we’re actually carrying on a conversation as the photos were taken. And even when you see someone sleeping in a photo, the odds are that I talked with that person on another occasion when they were conscious. Bottom line, I’m trying to document a social problem in the hope of promoting social change.

    • I have only just become aware of Jim Ross’s work. This article in pictures and words particularly touched me. As I went down from shot to shot, I found my eyes scalding with tears….this is a living horror for so many people! But at the same moment, I was comforted. The pictures were of some truly sad things, but beyond skill in craft, they were infused with compassion. Finally, somebody was doing a piece on this and doing it right, I thought to myself! And the text alongside the pictorials was just a flawless match.
      Thank you, Mr Ross for this piece! And thank you also, Barren Magazine! Truly enjoyed this and other articles I saw online. I trust you’ll be featuring Jim Ross’s work again soon.

      • Patti, thank you for reading and appreciating what I was hoping to accomplish. It inspires me to keep writing just to hear your words. I’m glad that you also read other articles in Barren, which is an incredible magazine that touches the human heart while heightening awareness of our struggles as human beings. Thank you. Jim

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