Posted on May 12, 2011 by Pat Hartman
In Houston, Texas, a pair of documentarians roamed the streets to connect with people experiencing homelessness.
They had one specific purpose in mind: to learn what possessions people hold onto when everything else has to be jettisoned. The writer is John Nova Lomax, the photographer is Daniel Kramer, and their first discovery was old news:
It practically goes without saying, but the homeless are everywhere downtown — they throng San Jacinto Street pretty much from southern Midtown all the way to Buffalo Bayou and beyond, they are all around the vicinity of the downtown library, and many of them line the bayou’s banks at Allen’s Landing, and many others make their homes near the courthouse complex.
It comes as no surprise that photos are the most cherished of portable items, because they are certainly among the most portable of cherished items. One man kept a photo of his daughter in her official high school graduation robe, and he’s proud to relate that she went on to college. Another kept an Army beret to memorialize his veteran father. One depended on his laptop computer.
A very practical fellow named his bedroll as his favorite possession, and his second was a small pocketknife. He told the documentary team, “I ain’t had to cut nobody yet or nothin’ like that…” At the other end of the spectrum, some street people find comfort in a rosary or a New Testament. One person’s treasured item had been a Bible, but it went missing. Another had owned a John 3:16 medal, but it was gone. (The verse is, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”)
One man said his prized possession was his own heart, because it held his love of Jesus. Of course, the interviewees talked about other matters too, such as how they ended up on the streets. When a trained electrician with 18 years experience can’t find work, something is seriously awry with society. By the way, if it’s ever been in your mind to give one small, quick, no-strings-attached present to a homeless person, Lomax has a suggestion. Apparently, a cheap transistor radio with headphones and a lanyard for suspending it around a person’s neck can be bought for about $6. It’s a small thing, but the kind of gift that really does keep on giving.
Small things are really all you can have if you’re homeless. What does a person even do with a jacket on a warm day? Wear it or carry it. Because you’re going to need it at night. But what about high summer, when it’s hot as Hades all night long? You sure don’t want to keep a jacket with you all the time. What about when winter comes? A jacket will sure come in handy then. But what the hell are you supposed to do with it in the meantime?
Maybe you’re lucky enough to own a suitcase or duffel bag or even a nice big camping-style backpack. It’s a place to keep stuff, but then you need a place to keep it. Or lug it around everywhere — to the soup kitchen, to the free clinic. To the job counseling office, and if you’re lucky enough to get some kind of interview, then where do you leave your stuff? Carrying a duffel around says “homeless” to the world, it’s a much a sign of pariah status as the bells that lepers used to wear.
When a city has a No Camping ordinance — what city does not these days? — the law very likely forbids not only fire-making, cooking, setting up a tent, and sleeping, but “storing personal belongings.” That’s right, thou shalt not leave thy stuff anywhere.
At Change.org, SlumJack Homeless discusses his method of dealing with possessions, which is a bicycle with an attached trailer. It’s better than a shopping cart, but still precludes a lot of activities. The problem of material goods is one of the reasons why he prefers the streets to the shelters, because there is no provision for the safety of belongings.
Now, it’s easy to understand why a shelter doesn’t want all these various conglomerations of stuff on the premises. For one thing, bedbugs are a continuing and terrible problem. The more items that are allowed through the door, the more likelihood of infestation, which of course can only be bad for any shelter residents who aren’t yet carrying bedbugs around. SlumJack Homeless says,
This forces people to a ridiculous minimum of belongings… one of the factors that actually contributes to perpetuating a person’s homeless predicament. Also, you DON’T want other people at shelters to see what you DO own and have. There are many thieves that will then know what you’re carrying around with you, many of whom you WILL run across later… at night, alone, etc.
Let’s just short-circuit this problem by bringing into reality the Universal Living Wage, which can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum wage workers. Then people can keep their stuff in their own place, and close and lock the door. Sounds like a plan!
Source: “Prized Possessions — Homeless in Houston share their most important objects,” Houston Press, 01/20/11
Source: “Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter,” Change.org, 06/03/09
Image by Richard Masoner, used under its Creative Commons license.