- Posted January 30, 2013 by
La Crosse, Wisconsin
Team iReport featured this story
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Photo essays: Your stories in pictures
Homeless in America- The Unseen Community
- zdan, CNN iReport producer
Throughout the U.S. homelessness continues to be a national problem. The financial crisis of 2008 was a major contributing factor as well as the lack of affordable housing, mental illness, alcoholism, poverty, and dysfunctional families. National statistics on homeless are staggering with data suggesting over 1.5 million Americans use a shelter or transitional housing during the year. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates nearly 700,000 Americans experience homelessness on any given night in the U.S. The Federal government has made strides to limit an increasing homeless population, but the problem continues, many times unnoticed in local smaller communities.
Understanding the homeless is more than mere statistics. While the homeless may be easily noticed in large cities such as New York or Chicago, they are an unseen community in smaller cities. As the Midwestern winter turns brutally harsh, this iReporter decided to cover a homeless shelter over several evenings.
My interest in telling the homeless story began on a cold day several years ago in March 2010 while photographing downtown Chicago. I came across Reggie, a homeless man sitting on Michigan Avenue. I asked Reggie if I could film him and he agreed. There he sat, huddled on the ground, holding a hand scrawled cardboard sign that read, “I’m injured, homeless, and hungry. Please help & have a wonderful blessed day.” People walked past with a few dropping pocket change in a cup. While this scene is repeated many times across the country, the homeless in smaller towns are largely unseen and rarely talked about.
Over several frigid evenings in La Crosse, Wisconsin I visited a “warming center” located in a church basement. It provides shelter for up to fifteen homeless people each night from 9:00pm until 7:00am. The deeply personal stories of these people, provides some insight into their plight and the difficult challenges they face. As I stood outside the shelter’s front door, it was windy with the temperatures hovering around 10 degrees. I was bundled with multiple layers to keep warm- the homeless inside had much less. Each night the homeless begin to line up at around 7pm, hoping to be one the 15 “chosen few” to have a place to sleep for the night.
I was met at the entrance by Jen Snook, an instructional designer at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. She volunteers at the shelter each Monday from 9:00pm to 2:00am. I asked Jen why she volunteers and she explained, “When I was growing up my mother would take my sister and me to feed people, help our church with Christmas dinners…we would pick people up in a bus around Los Angeles. That always stuck with me.” She continued saying, “Everyone has a completely different story. Maybe it is that they need a friend. These are my friends now.”
She introduced me to Gregg who initially did not want to be interviewed. After a few minutes, he opened up and began to tell his story. Gregg has been homeless for four years. He left La Crosse with four cents in his pocket and traveled to Minneapolis, Bismarck, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas staying at homeless shelters along the way. He ended up back in La Crosse and now comes to this shelter.
As I photographed Gregg, his weathered face and his disheveled beard foretold the hardships he had weathered. His hands were as expressive as his stoic face as he gazed off into the distance, thinking about a different time. Gregg chose his words carefully and spoke softly, calmly talking about his reliance on religion and readings in his Bible. I asked him about his family, he paused saying, “When I’m here... I’m home. I figure a homeless person isn’t a person without a house, a homeless person is someone who lives in a city who doesn’t have friends or a family….to me, that’s a homeless person.” Profound words from a man labeled as homeless.
Gregg said he had protested at City Hall for the homeless who have waited for hours just to get a number, and a chance to get into the shelter for the evening. When the shelter is full, the remaining homeless outside have to find somewhere else to spend the night.
Next I met John who was reluctant to be interviewed, but reconsidered, if he could help tell the story of the homeless. He didn’t want to be identified by agreed to have his hands photographed for the story. His hands were nondescript, but his weary eyes and voice spoke volumes.
John said he has been homeless for 12 years and admitted he had made bad decisions. Fortunately he was able to get a job at Wal-Mart during third shift, only to be homeless during the day. John explained that he had a degree in Institutional Foods but didn't make enough money. Eventually he got a job at Trane Corporation. John lamented, “So this was going to be my good job.” Unfortunately after working there for 7 months the company decided to move his plant to Mississippi. John said, “…and so we all were out of jobs…and that’s when the economy collapsed…and I was never called back…”
John works 10pm-7:00am and on his days off, he sleeps at the shelter during the winter- if he can get in. When he gets done with work, he spends most of the day finding something to do, or tries to find a place to sleep. In the summer he can sleep outside, but during the winter it’s hard. This week he worked 4 days straight. He looked down and wearily said, “I usually don’t get much sleep.” John hopes to save enough to find a place of his own, but that seems like a long way off. He talked about his brothers and sisters, but says they can’t help much.
As I walked around the room, I found Gregg laying in a large recliner, a blanket pulled tight up to his scraggly beard. He looked up at me and said how much he’d like to be musician. He paused and said, “I’d like to play you a song.” He bounded out of the chair, walked to another room and unpacked a guitar from a tired old case. The room was framed with cinder block walls, with large stacks of donated clothes surrounding him. In the corner was a line of shoes from the homeless who had made it into the shelter for the evening. Nearby were turquoise bins with the numbers 1-15 written on top. The homeless put their few belongings into each one for the evening.
In the center of the room was Gregg, his cardboard protest sign at his feet, a dim fluorescent light overhead. With a short pause, Gregg began to play a beautiful rendition of Greensleeves. I listened intently as I quietly photographed Gregg playing his guitar, his crooked fingers and dirty nails gracing the strings and frets with precision and sensitivity. The music flowed not from a homeless person, but from someone who had a talent for beautiful music. He was in a world only he knew.
In a moment he was done- the concert was over. I thanked him and he said, “God bless you.” I stopped to say goodbye to John while he was in a deep sleep. As he wearily waved goodnight, I wondered what it would be like at 7:00am when he would be asked to leave.
The next evening I went back to take a photo of the homeless lining up once again, hoping to be one of the “fortunate 15.” Tonight it was cold with a wind chill of -5 degrees. As I asked for permission to take the photos, I looked to the man on the left- it was John. I set up my camera across the street and began shooting. I looked through the viewfinder and caught glimpses of John smoking a cigarette, the wind whisking the smoke away from his face. I knew he was standing in the cold for me.
As I shot the last frame, I waved goodbye to John and said thanks. He turned, waved and went back inside to the warmth of the shelter. I paused and pondered if John or Gregg would ever break the homeless cycle. I knew within hours they would be out in the cold once again. As I finished the story, I checked the weather forecast: 5 to 7 inches of snow followed by -6 degree temperatures with 15 mph winds. I wondered if John or Gregg would be warm tonight.