You see them all over the state of Louisiana, sleeping in doorways and on benches, camped in makeshift, tented communities under bridges and interstates, and sitting with heads held down and hand-written signs held up at busy intersections – America’s homeless.
Yet for all their visible numbers, Louisiana’s homeless population remains a curiously invisible issue or rather, according to Heather Milton, director of fledging New Orleans non-profit ReFOCUS, one that people often go out of their way to ignore.
However, in New Orleans on October 10th 2017 – World Homeless Day – ReFOCUS, in conjunction with the New Orleans Downtown Public Library, will open a window into the lives of New Orleans’ homeless population. They will host a photography exhibit created by the MyNew Orleans Photo Project showing both New Orleans and New Orleanians through the eyes of the city’s homeless.
The My New Orleans Photo project was created by Milton and project partner Elizabeth Perez after graduating with master’s degrees from Tulane University’s Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy in 2015. Inspired by the MyLondon Photo Project, Milton and Perez founded MyNew Orleans Photo Project In 2016.
When she moved to New Orleans to pursue her degree, said Milton, she was disturbed by how people in New Orleans seemed to act as the homeless were invisible.
“I was curious about their stories, about who they were, and how they came to be here in New Orleans,” said Milton. “I wanted to help, and one of the newer approaches towards helping people is treating people as the experts of their own circumstances, and finding ways to help them tell their stories. That is what the MyNew Orleans Photo Project does.”
MyNew Orleans involves giving disposable cameras to homeless people who then use them to capture images of their everyday lives. ReFOCUS staff then go through each roll of film and collect information about the photographers that gives both context to their photographs and insight into the personal lives.
Photos are selected by a panel of judges and winners are awarded cash prizes. Two photographs from each participant are selected for display and the 14 top images are used to create a calendar that includes a brief but personal description of both the image and the photographer.
Now in its second year at the gallery exhibit, a 2018 MyNew Orleans calendar will be available for purchase, proceeds from which will go to support homeless service providers including Bridge House/Grace House, the Harry Tompson Center and Covenant House.
This year’s judges includes local photographer Thom Bennet, Mark Romig of the New Orleans Marketing and Tourism Commission, Kenny Lopez from WGNO News With A Twist, Will Jackson, housing specialist with UNITY, and Barbara B. St. Roman, the executive director for the NOPD’s Homeless Assistance Unit.
B.B. St. Roman has worked with New Orleans’ homeless for more than 13 years. She works with homeless people on the street and offers transport to the DMV for IDs, to various clinics for medical appointments, and to job interviews. She also provides information on services and shelters.
“All these people you see on the street had lives just like you or me at one time,” said St. Roman. “They had jobs, they had families. Something happened to them and it threw their lives off track. What they need is help to get their lives back on track.”
Over the course of her career, St. Roman estimates that she has helped over 16,000 people get off the street. However, she says, getting off the street is not always the same as staying off the streets.
“It can be a cycle,” said St. Roman. “Especially for people with mental health or alcohol problems. Many people on the street have difficulty functioning, and they need support to help them stabilize their lives. They need to be able to access medication, if they need it, and they need a place to get off the streets so that they can just calm down. Without support, they can easily end up back on the streets.”
But, she said, many homeless people are ready to make changes in their lives.
“People don’t understand why people become homeless,” said St. Roman. “There is a perception that homeless people are lazy, that they just want to get everything for free. That they don’t want to work. For most of the people I work with, that is so very far from the truth.”
According to St. Roman, projects like MyNew Orleans can be effective tools in changing people’s negative mindset when it comes to the homeless.
“If you take the time to talk to homeless people for even a few minutes,” said St. Roman, “you realize that that what threw them off track could happen to anybody.”
Perception can be a hard thing to change and according to Heather Milton, the homeless are often not just ignored, but shunned.
“It is a strange thing,” said Milton. “But I think that there is this kind of fear of contagion when it comes to the homeless. I think that many Americans are afraid of being too close to people who have extreme afflictions – whether it is homelessness, or addiction, or whatever. There is a fear that it somehow catches. And I think many people can’t even acknowledge that is how they think, so it is easier to just ignore what is making them uncomfortable.”
Uncomfortable or not, while numbers vary widely from state to state, the levels of homelessness in America is staggering.
In 2016, according to the Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress by HUD, more than half a million people in the U.S. were either sleeping on the streets, or living in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs. Of this number, almost 195,000 were families with children, 60 percent of whom were under that age of 18. Homeless military veterans accounted for more than 39,000, and of the 35,686 unaccompanied homeless youths, 11 percent were younger than 18 years old. In 2016, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, more than 4,000 people were sleeping rough – either on the streets or in shelters – a rate of 85 per 100,000 of the population.
In 2016, one of those people was this year’s MyNew Orleans Photo Project winner, forty-five-year-old Louis Robert Herrera.
Herrera arrived in New Orleans during Mardi Gras 2014 and spent the next two years living on the street.
A native of Los Angeles, up until the age of 16 Herrera endured physical, emotional, and a sexual abuse from his father. While living with his grandmother to escape his father’s abuses, he also struggled with learning disabilities, depression, and drug addiction.
“When my grandmother passed away, she didn’t leave a will, and unfortunately my dad didn’t care about family,” said Herrera. “The only thing he cared about was money, so he came in and sold the house, and then it was everybody out.”
After his grandmother died, Herrera lived with an uncle in Chihuahua, Mexico. It was the death of his uncle that put him on the road to New Orleans, where he lived under Interstate-10 with two other homeless men. Despair, he said, is common among the homeless.
“It was just the three of us, and they were hard vodka drinkers,” said Herrera. “It was like they wanted to die.”
Now in housing, Herrera is optimistic about his future. He volunteers with various organizations that feed the homeless, and also acts as an unofficial de facto advisor for people seeking information on to access homeless services.
“I just hope that the MyNew Orleans Project brings more awareness to the homeless issue,” said Herrera. “Some people call us trash people – they have no feelings towards the homeless whatsoever. It’s like homeless people are just eyesores. But we are not trash. We are human beings with feelings, like everybody else, and it is really sad that we don’t treat each other as that.”
The number of homeless adults in New Orleans decreased by 85 percent between 2007 and 2015 in part because of grants and outreach programs. In 2016, HUD awarded more than $355 million to homeless programs throughout the United States. But does this decrease apply to all the homeless populations in Louisiana?
According to a 2016 study by the National Center on Family Homelessness, homeless youths number around 40,000 in Louisiana – the state ranks 38th in the nation (closer to the worst than the best) for homeless youth population and while homeless adults might be decreasing, the number of homeless youth is on the rise.
“When it comes to adult homelessness I think that we have made tremendous strides since Katrina,” said James R. Kelly, the executive director of Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth in New Orleans. “But when it comes to comes to youth homeless, we haven’t made the same progress.”
Combating youth homelessness effectively would require extensive reforms in both America’s child welfare and justice system, said Kelly. An ongoing lack of affordable housing and the preponderance of minimum wage jobs are also “spigots” that constantly add to the number of homeless youths on the streets.
“We need to spend money on our homeless youth,” said Kelly. “Because if we don’t help them, then they are tomorrow’s homeless, tomorrow’s mentally ill. As a society, we can’t afford not to help them.”
“At Covenant House, we care for the most damaged population of young people that exists today,” said Kelly. “They have experienced years of abuse, violence and trauma. They are suffering from mental and behavioral health issues, and substance abuse problems. But these kids are brave and they are resilient. And they can be helped. ”
And, said Kelly, projects like MyNew Orleans Photo project are vital when it comes to educating the public both about the issue of homelessness in America and the humanity of those enduring it.
“Anything that helps to raise awareness, anything that helps to put a face to the homeless, is critical, “said Kelly. “Because, as Louisianans, do we make the poorest and most vulnerable of our citizens a priority? Often, the answer is no. But we all need to be reaching down and giving a hand up – not a hand out, but a hand up – to the less fortunate.”
For 27-year-old photo contest winner Sadie May, coming to New Orleans was a both a hand up and a way out of homelessness and addiction. An aspiring actress, May had become addicted to both alcohol and methamphetamine when living Los Angeles.
“I was very, very sick,” said May. “I had been using for six or seven years, but in the last year it had taken a very dark turn, and my brother convinced me to come to New Orleans to enter rehab.”
She enrolled at Bridge House/Grace House, and now lives in assisted housing, and works at a local veterinary practice. Of the two photographs she took that are featured in the MyNew Orleans Photo Project, the one that has a very personal meaning for her is an image of a towering live oak tree.
“I saw that tree every day,” she said. “And I kept thinking of the roots of that tree and how old it must be. And how I came to New Orleans to re-root my life.”
As well as giving a face to New Orleans’ homeless, one of the most valuable contributions that MyNew Orleans Photo Project has made is that it has given its participants a tangible sense of achievement, according to B. B. St. Roman.
“This kind of project can be a huge boost to someone’s self-esteem,” said St. Roman. “It is not just a question of prize money, it is about proving to others that you have something to offer, despite your circumstances.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Juston Winfield’s story is based here in New Orleans. Like many New Orleanians, he worked a series of hospitality jobs until the down-tick in tourism following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.
“I lost both my jobs, I lost my house,” said Winfield. “I could have lived with my family but I was a man grown, and I was going to go through what I had to until I could get myself situated.”
Winfield’s situation soon involved either sleeping rough or in tents set up under bridges or interstates.
“For four years, I did sleet and snow, me,” said Winfield. “I did freezing nights outside.”
Winfield was still living on the streets when he heard of the MyNew Orleans Project. The winning image that he captured is that of a prayer circle formed by a group of people handing out meals to the homeless gathered under the Pontchartrain Expressway.
“It was one of those days,” said Winfield. “I was hungry and these guys rolled up and I ate. I would have never thought that photo would win – it was just a regular moment in my life at that time.”
Homelessness is not a choice, said Heather Milton, it is a circumstance, and one that is not that far removed from anyone’s life.
“Me and my friends have talked about how many people, just like us, are all just one major illness away from bankruptcy and homelessness,” said Milton. “Our goal is to get the public to experience the lives and stories of New Orleans’ homeless. We want to build support for providing the homeless services and we want to remind people that we have all experienced uncertainty when it comes to housing. It really is a case of there but for the grace of God go I.”
MyNew Orleans’ gallery reception will be held on October 10th from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the New Orleans Public Library at 219 Loyola Ave.
The exhibit remains on display throughout the month of October.
Additional information about ReFOCUS is available at: https://refocusdialogue.com/
Additional information about MyNew Orleans Photo Project is available at: https://www.facebook.com/MyNewOrleansPhotoProject/
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