Life-size portraits, personal stories, raise profile of neighbors experiencing homelessness.

“To see my photo up there and read my story was a little heartbreaking,” Chris, 38, told me on Friday morning when we talked on the phone about “See My Story,” the new exhibit by Evanston photographer Doug Haight that opened at Perspective Gallery last Thursday evening and focuses on individuals who are experiencing homelessness.


“I've had quite a rough go of it the last 10, 20 years, so it was kind of tough to share,” Chris said about participating in the project. “I was hesitant to begin with, but I knew it was for a good cause, to give us voices. We don't usually have a way to bring our voices up, and Doug’s a great guy. I trusted him.”


Chris’ photo, one of 21 powerful and poignant life-size portraits of people who have experienced or continue to experience homelessness, will hang along the gallery’s walls till September 26.


The photos, each accompanied by a page-long personal narrative winnowed from hours of interviews, provide insight into the lives of people most of us pass by in and around Evanston and throughout the country every day, but too seldom truly see or take time to know.


Chris, near the Secret Alley, 2020

“It really makes people who are experiencing homelessness seem the real people they are--just like you and me,” said Sue Murphy, director of Interfaith Action of Evanston, which provides drop-in shelters and food for Evanston neighbors who are homeless and which partnered with Doug on the project--along with Evanston’s Connections for the Homeless.


“We don't usually have the opportunity to notice that.”


Doug came up with the idea for the exhibit in 2017 after he attended a Connections fundraiser where celebrated Boston doctor and humanitarian Jim o’ Connell spoke about his years providing medical care to people experiencing homelessness in his city.


“I walked away asking, how can I use my photography to help make a difference?” Doug said.


Working closely with Connections and IAE, Haight, who has an MFA in Fine Arts and Film Video from Columbia College Chicago and is an award-winning photographer and video producer, spent two years at the organizations’ drop-in centers and warming centers getting to know Chris and others and developing relationships with them.


He hopes the exhibit increases awareness about and empathy for people experiencing homelessness and that it will encourage more people to volunteer with and financially support his partner organizations that provide services and advocacy. And, he told me, it’s enormously important to him that the people he interviewed come to see the exhibit.


“Hopefully, seeing themselves on a gallery wall, they’ll feel acknowledged, recognized,” he said.

Initially a portraiture project, Doug soon recognized that wouldn’t be enough.


“People’s lives are complex, and if you really want to know somebody's journey, I was going to have to do more than that,” he said. “So I began to have conversations with them and started recording them—with their permission, of course.”


Chris’ story is just one example of the ways in which--without support or a safety net--people’s lives can unravel and devolve until they find themselves unhoused.


Chris grew up in Chicago with an alcoholic father and, he says, an enabling mother. His parents divorced when he was five. Part of the story next to his portrait, which he told Doug last year, reads:

“His new stepfather was abusive and dealt drugs so that their house was raided more than once and he went to jail a couple of times. Although Chris was a smart kid and got straight A's, he became a gangbanger and started dealing drugs himself. By 17 he was the father of a daughter. Soon he discovered heroin.


‘I don't have friends. I have burned every bridge I've ever had … I swore I will never be homeless again so many times. It sucks being out there, I'll tell you that, especially when it's cold. There's nothing worse, holy smokes, sitting and freezing ... I'm dying of frostbite on both of my toes right now.’


Today, Chris’ life, though still beset with challenges, may be looking up. In June, with Connections’ help, he moved into his own apartment. When we talked, he told me he was outside a methadone clinic waiting for his daily appointment. He said that part of why he’s pleased to have participated in the exhibit is because it gives him the chance to reach others, using his story as a cautionary tale.

“I thought that my story, being about drug abuse and rehabilitation, if I can reach one of these kids coming up, and they could say, maybe I don't want to be like this guy at 40. I mean, I understand I'm 40, I got plenty of time, but I'm constantly thinking that I wasted my life,” he told me.


“If I can steer one kid away from this stuff, it would be worth it.”


Donna, 59, is on the gallery wall too. She worked for 30 years as a dental assistant in Chicago before being laid off, and her first experience with homelessness occurred when she and her two children left her abusive husband. “I hope I haven’t become immune to living this way,” she says in her story. “It hurts to the core. I’m not homeless, I fell into homelessness.”


Donna, in her car, where she spent many nights.

And there’s Janeen, 45, whose mother became addicted to pain pills after separating from her husband when Janeen was 5. She began to steal and spent the next few decades in and out of jail … Janeen has struggled with health issues, which has limited her ability to work. She’s lived in rented apartments, hotels, Airbnbs and shelters. During the pandemic, Connections housed her at the Margarita Inn and this year she moved into a place of her own, and started work as a licensed health insurance agent.


“I have keys around my neck because I found them, and they look pretty ... I believe keys equal access to something bigger, better out there in the world,” her narrative reads. “I have a heart around my neck, which means love ... That's why I expect things to get a lot better.”


Janeen, in hotel room. An expensive luxury but not at all uncommon for someone who is homeless. To get out of the shelters and have a peaceful comfortable night or two. Janeen would do this from time to time, as well as many others.

Connections’ development director Nia Tavoularis says no-one should be unhoused. She said that while the exhibit helps visitors recognize that every person struggling with homelessness has a specific story, each falls within a much broader context.


“I want the community to look at housing scarcity and housing instability and ask, ‘Why is this happening?' And then be able to face the fact that the answers are systemic. Because that can lead to seeking out ways to resolve the issue,” she told me.


“It’s easy to lump people together. It’s easy to say, ‘homeless people,’” she said. “Individual stories help us see that it's not a series of 'bad choices,' it's layers and layers that have brought a person to this place.”


With the start of the Covid-19 pandemic last March, a devastating layer was added to the housing-loss and homelessness scourge in Evanston and throughout the nation: thousands and thousands of workers in low-paying service jobs--people who have the fewest resources and buffers to weather job loss--were the first to become unemployed.


“Those who were just keeping it together were the most impacted,” Nia explained.

Incredibly, Connections responded almost overnight. It has delivered essential services to people who became suddenly homeless and unstably housed as a result of the pandemic, while still maintaining its general operations and continuing to serve participants already in its programs.

By this past March, Connections had prevented 1,594 participants from being evicted since the start of the pandemic. It had sheltered 343 participants at Evanston hotels and shelter operations and served 1,300 participants at day-time drop-in shelters, and had helped 225 participants move into stable housing.


In just one year, the organization grew from 41 staff members to 92--more case workers, case managers, and 24/7 operational staff. At the same time, its budget more than doubled--from $6 million to $13.5 million. While much of this is public funding, Nia said, private donations have also increased significantly.


“It’s more important than ever to sustain private donations should public funds dry up,” she said, because the pandemic’s effect on employment and housing instability will continue and the need for Connections, Interfaith Action, and other such organizations, will remain critical.


In fact, according to a recent report on pandemic unemployment by LA-based research organization the Economic Roundtable, job losses will cast a long shadow into the future unless there is intervention at all levels of the US government. The US could see as many as 603,000 more people without housing by 2023, researchers found.


Tavoularis said there are three approaches to ending homelessness, all of which we must invest in simultaneously:


1. Prevent it where possible using federal, state, and municipal funds through local organizations.

“Prevention means paying a person’s back rent, mortgage, or utilities. It’s the most effective way to keep homelessness at a distance,” she explains. “People get behind on rent, then they get fines, then they get more behind, then they get evicted. Then they can’t rent another place because they have an eviction on their record. Their credit score sinks, and now they have to pay more for everything. Rent, phones, credit cards, their car, all of it. And the vicious cycle continues, unless you write a check and pay the $3,500 dollars they owe their landlord.”


2. Establish adequate shelter for when people fall through the cracks.

“We still don't have enough shelter in Evanston even though in the past year we went from 18 to 80 beds,” she said. And even once people are matched with housing, it can take 60 days to get into the place.


3. Create more affordable housing.

“It's not just ADUs, or tiny homes, or new 40-unit buildings, or reparations. It's all of those things,” Nia explained. Not to mention that continuously rising housing values displace many people.

For Chris and many others, increased access to mental health services, social services, and medical treatment are also crucial.


Having struggled with anxiety and depression since childhood, Chris told me that adjusting to his new life in an apartment is challenging. “I'm not quite used to it,” he said. “I've been so used to being around people all the time. Now I'm by myself, and the depression starts to set in. But I'm blessed to be off the street, for now, in a beautiful apartment.”


Chris encourages everyone to see the exhibit, to learn more about the hurdles he and others face. “My portrait is the one of the handsome guy,” he laughed as we hung up.


For Doug, his work on the exhibit took on significantly more meaning this spring when he learned that an old friend from college had recently become homeless and then died by suicide. “I was very close with this guy, vacationed with him, we knew each other’s families,” Doug said. “At some point I lost touch with him, just personal dynamic stuff.”


His friend had been married, had kids, and then got divorced, largely because of substance abuse issues, and eventually fell into homelessness.


“It really hit me,” Doug told me. “We grew up in very similar circumstances, we had the same potential and opportunities. It just as easily could have been me.”


And that's exactly what Doug hopes his exhibit ... brings home.

 

“See My Story” has received grants from the Evanston Arts Council and the Evanston Community Foundation, and raised additional completion funds through a Go Fund Me campaign.


Perspectives Gallery is located at 310-1/2 Chicago Ave, Evanston

Book a group visit here.


More about the exhibit. The exhibit will be up until September 26. There will be an in-person discussion with the production team open to the public on Thursday, September 23 at 7 p.m.


To volunteer and contribute:


Connections for the Homeless

info@connect2home.org 847-475-7070

Interfaith Action of Evanston

ia@interfaithactionofevanston.org 847-869-0370 PO Box 1414 Evanston 60204

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