Photographer captures homeless plight
Christopher Pierce had been living in Colorado Springs when he came to Grand Junction at the behest of his father. For unknown reasons, the young man’s father assured his son he had a spacious apartment here in town where the two could live.
After making the journey over the Rocky Mountains, those promises of living together evaporated and Pierce never even met up with his wandering father.
At 21, the fun-loving man known for giving the shoes off his feet to others who had none, died from sleep apnea last winter in his tent by the Colorado River. He had HIV and some developmental disabilities.
Before his death, Pierce, who also spent some nights at the Homeward Bound homeless shelter, agreed to take part in a photo and audio story project aimed at highlighting the plight of the homeless.
Photographer Stevan Maxwell debuts the exhibit of 25 subjects tonight at Homeward Bound’s Journey Home fundraiser.
“Ninety-five percent of the time they break down and start crying,” Maxwell said about documenting people’s stories. “It brings them back into reality.”
Leave behind whatever you thought about homeless people in our community. The interactive documentary offers audio stories in their own words during roughly five-minute segments. Those featured are photographed against a white background. They strike casual poses but emanate a presence that indicates a hard life behind a courageous face.
Maxwell asked the participants three questions: How did they become homeless? What is it like to spend a night in the shelter? How do they feel people perceive them?
“You see the expressions on their faces,” Maxwell said of the project. “In some cases these people are trying to make sense of their lives. This gives them some stability.”
Take, for example, the stories of Jerry and Diane. The couple was en route from California to move in with a parent in Ignacio, seeking a better life.
When the Greyhound bus stopped in Grand Junction, they discovered they were $6 short to continue the trip. As they phoned the parent to tell of their dilemma, the parent told them they shouldn’t bother coming. There were no jobs in Ignacio and, besides, the family couldn’t afford to take them on anyway.
“We spent the first night in town by the river, and there were crazy people going through the brush,” according to a taped interview with the couple. “I was ashamed to ask for help. I’ve never been faced with that.”
Like thousands of other people before, Jerry and Diane found a temporary landing place at the shelter. The couple has since moved on, leaving Grand Junction.
Last year, Homeward Bound offered sleeping arrangements 39,785 times. That’s up from 35,829 in 2009.
As foreclosures, sudden job losses and other circumstances cost people their homes in 2010, 1,184 people found themselves at the North Avenue shelter for the first time or for the first time that year. Ninety-five families were housed in 2010. That’s up from 72 families the year before.
The shelter was designed to ward off the prospect of homeless folks freezing to death during Grand Junction’s winter nights, but usage steadily increased even during the warmer months.
“Summers used to be around 60 people in here,” Homeward Bound’s operations coordinator Mollie Woodard said. “We’ve been running at capacity in the summer and winter for two solid years.”
In addition to a roof overhead, basic services, two meals a day and a warm bed, Homeward Bound offers assistance for newly homeless to sign up for food stamps and use low-income health services from Marillac Clinic. Case managers are able to help some guests get into temporary and permanent housing.
Many people who help the homeless feel compelled to do it, but many more people don’t get a firsthand, personal look at the homeless. That’s why Maxwell embarked on his project.
“It’s a way to understand people who live in shelters. People who live in the shelter are different from people who live on the street,” he said. “You know the ‘Grapes of Wrath.’ That’s pretty close to what this is.”