Believe it or not, I have been writing this post in my head now for a year. I got the inspiration to write this after a huge road trip with my boyfriend, Jacob. We crossed through about 6 or 7 different states and the atmosphere was vastly different in each of them.
I find it important to open conversations about the homeless and not only what we can do to help them, but what we can do to help them off the streets. What can we do to help them become respected, contributing members of society? How can we improve the programs that are currently available to homeless?
New Orleans, LA
I am going to start with New Orleans which was not a city we visited in our most recent epic road trip, but the one prior. We were invited down to Louisiana for a family event for Jacob; we usually are all for any reason to get out of Charlotte and travel so we were totally down.
New Orleans was not our main destination in Louisiana, but we were very excited to be able to stop on our way back home. While my story for this city isn’t as developed as the others, it is still a story worth telling. I feel it paints a necessary narrative. We were only able to be in the city for a few hours and were walking around when we saw a few homeless people standing around a sidewalk. We were hesitant to walk that way, in fear of potentially being asked for money. The one lady that had a sign turned and we were able to read it better. The sign she was holding that read, “Need weed money.” While, I felt for her and her situation, I also found it a little comical, because of how honest she was being. I actually felt proud of her in that moment. I have not ever read a homeless person’s sign that has been that brutally honest.
A lot of times when you work with homeless or in a shelter, people will tell you never to give cash because you don’t know where it’s going; it could likely be going towards alcohol and/or drugs.
While it might not be the best option for this lady to be using her money on weed; I found it admirable that she was confirming where your money would be going if you donated to her.
Jacob and I were in Nashville for 3-4 hours, as opposed to our original plan of 7-8 hours. Things change, and we started our trip a little later than we planned. After eating, we decided to go to the heart of Nashville downtown and tour the main strip a little. It was a huge melting pot of different kinds of people and tourists, and there were many homeless. To be completely honest, I can remember being a little frightened because the main strip is very crowded and a little dirty. There were homeless men shouting because they were drunk, but they did not bother us. They kept to themselves.
After doing a little research, there has been an initiative proposed (April 2018) to build a skyscraper building downtown with low-income housing for homeless. There are also plans to build a Downtown Homelessness Service Center in conjunction with housing.
All of this comes just several months after a huge memorial service held in downtown Nashville because of 100+ homeless that died on the streets. Some even during the winter due to below freezing temperatures because they were without adequate shelter. A homeless man expressed his frustration with emergency shelters being locked until 5-6pm, when below freezing temperatures often start prior to that timeframe in Nashville.
Chicago was one of the cities we were most looking forward to on our road trip last June (separate trip from New Orleans). We had essentially driven from Charlotte, stopping along the way in varied popular cities on our way up to our most northern destination.
We were humbled, to say the least, when we entered Chicago only to find old mattresses lined up along the highway bridges. For that to be the first impression we received of such a popular city we had only viewed in photos and videos was shocking. I knew we had a lot to learn from a city full of artistic architecture and well-known tourist’s spots. But where would we learn the most? From its people.
I was able to capture the image below as Jacob was driving. I took lots of photos (as most photographers do) while he was driving and most came out unclear – not this one. It may be my most favorite shot, my most important that I’ve taken of a landscape as a photographer. To me, this defines a part of Chicago that is not often seen or spoken about across the internet and social media sites.
This particular image that I was extremely lucky to have shot, only shows one mattress. As I mentioned earlier, there were mattresses lined all under the bridge, but they were all empty. It was daylight, and my only assumption is that their inhabitants were off searching for food.
Cincinnati was our main destination for this road trip as we had an event to attend. We had decided several months prior that instead of flying, we would just take the week off before and travel. Neither of us had ever been and we spent the first night out walking around Over-The-Rhine, a popular Cincinnati neighborhood. Two homeless men approached us that night and over the course of the next couple days were asked by several others for money.
We were shocked at how brazen the people were compared to all the different cities we had visited. We had been on the road for a week and this was the first spot that people actually came up to us begging, making us feel bad for not being able to contribute.
It was dark out and we had just finished eating and were leaving when a man stopped us outside the restaurant. He had a brand new electric toothbrush and instantly became a salesman once he caught our attention. In an attempt to sell this toothbrush to us, he explained that the money would allow him to take the bus to get home.
We apologized for our disinterest and proceeded on to a bar across the street. Another man approached us upon entering the bar, whom also had a need to get on the bus. We once again apologized for not being able to help.
We grabbed a drink and were probably back out on the street within 30 minutes, when we were re-approached by the first man. This time his need was more dire and he expressed that he really only needed $5 or $10 so he could go home.
Jacob decided to give him some money, and of course, the second man was around and saw us. He came up to us and asked us again, this time holding an old, dirty, folded up lawn chair. He said he ran home to grab the chair so he could sell it for money. The only problem with his story was that he needed money to get home, but according to him, he had just ran home to grab the lawn chair.
I was admittedly getting pretty annoyed with all of the ploys these men were using to get fast cash. I asked the man if he stole the lawn chair, and explained his story didn’t add up. He promised he didn’t, and while I didn’t believe him, it was time to end the conversation.
I was born and raised in Charlotte, so it’s safe to say that my perspective of homeless is more interactive. I worked at a drugstore for almost 5 years and witnessed the homeless much more when I was there. Many would come in to cool off from the summer heat, and some would come in to steal electronics to resell.
I most definitely had compassion in my heart for those people, but it was difficult. It would frustrate me to stop these people from stealing, because I didn’t understand why they had to steal. We would have many that would loiter around the building and stalk people as they came into the store, begging for just a little money.
One woman made up a story about being pregnant and having just been raped. She said she needed enough to take a train to Virginia the next night. We figured out her story did not check out when she was seen for multiple weeks telling the same story.
I have met a fair share of people that were proud and did not want the help. They wanted to figure it out for themselves. I can respect that mentality, but at the same time, I find it different if you are without shelter or means for food. I had a man come in that came in to cool off. One of my managers had suspected he was there to steal and asked him to leave if he wasn’t shopping. I felt so bad for him and asked if I could help him, buy him lunch, a water, anything really. His response was no, because he didn’t “want to take advantage” of me. I was shocked with that answer and explained that if I offered, that wouldn’t be taking advantage. He refused to let me help and left.
My experience with volunteering has helped me realize that these people just want to be seen and heard. I got an amazing opportunity to help some local homeless people with a new friend. I met Dru on a local Facebook group and she offered for me to come with her one day when she goes out to the streets to deliver food and water. I jumped at the opportunity to help and would love to go out again soon.
Pictured: Critter (1, 2, 3), Rub-a-dub (2,3), and Dru (3)
Dru started a very important Facebook page called, Homeless in Charlotte. It is her attempt to bring the homeless on the streets and social media together. Why? She wants people on social media to see life through their lens. She wants to connect homeless with supplies and food. If someone needs something, she can put out a message on the page and someone can donate.
I am very thankful for the experiences I have gotten to have at home and in other cities. It has helped me to really try and put myself in their shoes. Even though I will never fully be able to understand what it is like to be homeless.