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!