I am not a spiritual person. Nor am I known to ally myself with causes. I enjoy cigars and red meat and don’t much care if some energy company decides to frack Yosemite. So when I embarked upon a personal photography project, I had no idea it would lead me to confront one of today’s most profoundly important social issues: the fight against homelessness.
In November of 2010, I found myself estranged from the city where I’d spent most of my life: Philadelphia. Many of the old landmarks had been demolished or “repurposed.” The Center City movie theaters like the SamEric and the Budco Goldman were long gone. Most of the lunch counters, like Jimmy’s Paper Plate and Tower Lunch, had vanished. Gimbel’s department store had failed, and Wanamaker’s had become Macy’s. So I decided, rather than to complain, to reacquaint myself with my city and to preserve photographically a few of the remaining landmarks that held some sentimental value for me.
Armed with a Canon Powershot A560 point-and-shoot, I went into the streets. I photographed the locked doors of the old Wilfred Beauty Academy and the ghost sign of the old Blum’s Store. I wandered along what is now Schuylkill Banks and photographed the freight trains lumbering alongside the river.
During one of my walks through Center City, a man seated on a milk crate asked if I had any change. I gave him what I had and we began to talk. His name, he said, was Bob (pictured above). I asked if I could take his picture. “Nobody’s asked me that in years,” he said. So I did, and showed him the image on my camera’s screen. “Better than I thought I looked,” he said with a twist of a smile. Neither of us knew it, but Bob had changed my life’s course.
During my subsequent walks, I would stop and talk with the homeless men and women who panhandled along the Center City streets. As a former brown-bag drunk and now recovering alcoholic myself, I am no stranger to some of the challenges faced by those struggling with addiction. Many was the time in the late 1980s that I played harmonica on a street corner to get drinking money. While I was fortunate enough never to have been homeless, my experiences both drunk and sober have allowed me at least to enter into a dialogue with those for whom addiction is a part of their story.
So my walks continued, and my photographs began to accumulate. I upgraded to a Canon SX10 IS, and uploaded the images to my stream on Flickr, a popular photo-sharing website, under the set title “Hard Luck Philly.” Where I had a person’s name, I’d include it as the title of the photo, and inasmuch as someone cared to share their story, I included the details in the photo caption.
A few months later, I was talking to my wife about my street experiences and remarked that no matter what a person can lose or have taken from them in society, they still have their name. So the “Everyone Has a Name” project was born. I began a new set on Flickr and included all the street portraits for which the subject had provided his or her name, and included the respective stories. See the “Everyone Has a Name” Project on Flickr.
As the months passed, I learned a few things—among the most surprising of which was how gracious and forthcoming the people I met were with their stories. Lemuel Davis (pictured below), a 62-year-old former cook, told me, “People look at me and they see a number, not a need.” He, like so many others, shared his story with me. How he’d come up from the Carolinas and worked in various restaurants around the city, how he’d owned a home and a car, and how he’d let crack take over his life. He’s clean now, and something of a street corner philosopher. “Jail’s a good place for a fool,” he once told me, “he might learn something in there.” For his part, Lemuel tries to stay out of trouble. “Everyone knows me out here,” he says, “they know I mean no harm.” Since I met him, he’s started receiving disability and has obtained a small place in North Philly. He still panhandles to pay for several medications that he needs.
I began sharing some of my photos on social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. In each case, my work was received favorably by a handful of friends. During that time, I began to change the way I helped the people I met in the street. Instead of giving cash, I began to give gift cards—to drugstores like CVS or Rite Aid, to convenience markets like Wawa and 7-Eleven, and to food franchise stores like Subway. Ranging in denominations from $5 to $10, these cards were universally well received. Think about it: a gift card from CVS can mean cold medicine or antibacterial ointment, and a card from Subway can mean a hot, sit-down meal out of the elements. I began to publicize the gift card idea on my various social media accounts, and conversations began. Those who had been concerned that homeless persons would use cash donations for drugs or cigarettes agreed that a gift card to a food chain like Subway was a way to give without enabling addiction. Others simply saw the idea as a way to give spontaneously.
In July 2012, when the project had reached nearly 200 images, I noticed a sudden spike in views on my “Everyone Has a Name” set on Flickr. I soon learned that someone had suggested my name to MetaFilter, which had linked to my Flickr set, sending thousands of new viewers my way. Soon, other interest began to flow in. Business Insider profiled the project, as did Flavorwire. Each of these articles brought thousands of page views to the set, while increasing internet dialog about the project.
Then in August, I was contacted by the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services (DBHIDS). I met the director, Marcella Maguire, and learned that some of the people I’d photographed had received help and were in fact no longer homeless. The agency wanted to know if I would be interested in shooting a series of “after” photographs, as a way to show that homelessness does not equal hopelessness, and that there IS in fact a way out. Naturally, I leapt at the chance. As I write this, I eagerly await my first opportunity to reconnect with the people I first photographed at perhaps their lowest time, and to see them thriving in their newfound residences. I feel deeply honored to be a part of this work, and am keenly aware that without social media, none of this would have been possible.
I urge others: if you have an idea that might help the disadvantaged, even if you do not see it as a national or global initiative, please do not quit. Keep going. Help one person at a time. And if it seems to be working, tell others of its success. Use the social media avenues open to you. You never know how far a dream can go.
Photos © Charlie O’Hay