A New Project

A few winters ago, I noticed a man in a long red coat panhandling on the freeway off ramp where I exit for home in the evenings.   His dark, curly hair and beard grew out of control and, coupled with the attire, reminded me of a displaced Charles Dickens character.  His theatrical appearance sparked my interest, and I began watching for him.  

I noticed some patterns.  He’d arrive for “work” when I was leaving Bellingham in the mornings.  He had a shopping chart filled with belongings that he parked below the overpass.   Upon returning to Bellingham, I’d see him still standing there, or packing it up as though this was a full-time job.  Every now and then he’d yell furiously down the street at some non-existent passerby and throw his hands in the air like he was reliving some old, angry memory. When the summer arrived his unruly mane was trimmed, and he’d shift nervously from left to right as he held his cardboard sign in the heat.   It absolutely broke my heart.  I started thinking about how this mentally ill, most likely homeless man was someone’s son.  Someone’s brother.  Possibly someone’s estranged husband. 

Eventually he disappeared from his post, but I still think of him on occasion and wonder what happened.  Did he get help?  Medication?  Food and shelter?  And, how could I have possibly helped? 

In Vancouver, British Columbia this past summer I found the Hope in Shadows project.   A contest is held every year in which homeless residents in Vancouver receive disposable cameras, and winning photos are used to create a calendar.  The calendar is then sold for profit to help the homeless.   It got me thinking – this would be fun to attempt in Bellingham, understanding of course that the photographers would need to be carefully selected by the volunteers who work at the shelters.  The man by the freeway I mention above wouldn’t necessarily be capable of participating, but he could at least benefit from the profits. 

Of course, my idea stayed exactly that – an idea.  I’d talk about it with friends trying to figure out what I’d need to do to get started, but I never really got the ball rolling.  Then, this past weekend in Seattle I spotted the man pictured above in an alley.  He emerged to join a group enjoying some rare sunshine in Pioneer Square.  There was one face in particular that tugged at my heartstrings, and I decided I had to get serious about it.   I like photography, so why not use something I love to help others?  I have other ideas that would work in tandem with the calendar project, but more on that later.

The homeless live with such a stigma – that somehow they can help their situation but chose not to.  Maybe that’s true for some, but I don’t want to make assumptions.  I just want to help.   There are valuable organizations already in place that support this population.  However, I think this would be a creative way to raise more funds that can then be donated to them.   Not everyone can be helped, and not everyone wants to be helped, but even if just one person can benefit, then I think it’d be worth it.  Right?

All of these thoughts, just from a photo walk to Seattle!   Thanks for reading to the end of this longer than usual post.  If anyone has any ideas or suggestions, I’d be happy to hear them!

21 thoughts on “A New Project

  1. Excellent photos and post – I believe the most important thing any of us can do with these issues is to raise awareness about them. These issues are tied together from many dimensions. Recent surveys show 58% of homeless people affected by mental illness. And while medical science made significant advancements in drug therapies to help major disorders, it’s not an exact science. Careful patient monitoring is required. Additionally, assistance from a family member or caregiver is often required to keep the person on their medications. And then there are the issues of cost – many of these new medications are extremely expensive. Abilify, a new medication used to treat bipolar and schizophrenia can cost upwards of $600 a month. Add the cost of a therapist and you begin to understand why there are so many untreated people on the street. Poor, powerless and oftentimes scary, these people try to live life by avoiding it. You see them curled up in cardboard boxes, under bridges and wandering the streets. It’s not a simple problem and won’t go away anytime soon. If society could come to better understand these people as people then we might begin to help them.

    1. I appreciate your comment, Paul and the information you provided. The mental health aspect is something I’ve given a lot of thought to. There are some basic needs everyone has – food, clothing, shelter. But, I believe some funds should also be allocated to help people get the mental health treatment they need. I’m curious to find out what kind of help is currently availabe in the area and what they have to do to get it.

      I agree that the most important thing we can do is raise awareness, and I’m hoping that by using this photo/calendar project as a fundraiser, we can accomplish that. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. If you have any resources you’d ever like to share, please feel free!

  2. Lovely photo and a great blog post. In the past I was part of a group doing some volunteer work and helping with a Christmas project in the Amerindian communities of the North Rupununi here, my job and family has since taken over as priorities, but it felt good to be part of it.
    I’m with Mike on this, try to find ways where your talents can be used to augment the existing organisations, even pitch your ideas to them.
    Be safe! Good luck, and I look forward to whatever bears fruit from your ideas.

  3. Jolene, what a thoughtful idea to share with others. Such a sad situation. All it does is take one person to help and others to follow. Your coverage here is helping spread the word. It makes me think of my own town. There are such a shortage on food at the local pantries, the pre-schools have asked kids for food donations. It’s great when the little ones can learn that what they do can help feed someone. They also collected change to buy a goat for families in Africa. My kids loved bringing in their change and helping out. All the classes helped buy a few goats. It was great to see the excitement and teach them valuable lessons early on. Thanks for sharing your post.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Martina. I love the idea of raising awareness of such issues in children. Kids have such a beautiful way of seeing the world and give so selflessly. Very cool.

  4. I once saw a documentary about a reporter who wanted to do a photo book about the prostitutes in India, but because it was too dangerous, she decided to help their children. She gave each of the children a camera and eventually she held a photo exhibition in New York and they sold their photographs and some of them could go to school and one even went to university I think and was saved from prostitution, etc. I think it was called “Born into Prostitution” A calender or something like that is a great idea!
    All the best to you, Jolene!
    BTW – beautiful photograph!

      1. Hi Jolene…the documentary is actually called “Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids” and it’s very inspiring.

        I’m looking forward to seeing how this idea develops!

      2. Hi Michelle – thank you for sharing the name! My wonderful friend Andy put it in his Netflix queue so we can watch it. From what I’ve seen online so far, it looks like it’ll be very inspiring.

  5. The man you first described sounds like “Greg” the ex-architect I was aquainted with many years ago. At one time, it sounds like he was a very good architect.

    Then there was a woman who dressed in a long black trench coat with turtle neck sweather, even in the heat of summer. Wanting to help,I brought her back to my place to do laundry and for a while she seemed “normal” and then suddenly got upset with me because she felt I had pursed my lips while speaking. She left and I never saw her again.

    I learned that while at times their minds seem lucid and intelligent and looks like there might be hope for them to get better. I realized most of these people are there because of mental illness and not by choice. And they need a lot more than simple acts of kindness to get better. It’s very sad…

    1. Thank you for sharing your story, Emily. I have urges to do similar things, but then I’m reminded of abnormal behavior I’ve experienced from people. It is very sad…the people who get locked in and lost in their own minds. Some people are simply down on their luck. I think it’s important to do what you can, knowing you can’t help everyone, but at the very least your efforts could mean a hot meal or a warm blanket for someone.

  6. It is a persistent problem and many people ignore it. I think it’s great that you want to raise awareness and do something about it. The key is to find a way to help that is both safe (for you) and effective.

    My general suggestion is to focus on helping the organizations that are already in place to assist the poor and homeless. These organizations have been hit hard by a drop in private donations and now they will be hit even harder by the massive spending cuts that are being enacted by state and federal governments.

    I do have some specific ideas on how to do this – give me a day or so to collect my thoughts and I’ll follow up with you in email.

    There is always something that can be done.

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