Gary heard the other kids shouting and screaming as they raced down the stairs that Christmas morning in 1959. He rubbed his eyes and looked around him. In that lonely space between being fully awake and fully asleep, he thought he saw his mother. He remembered her smell; he remembered the way she smiled at him. And then he remembered the tears in her eyes as she dropped him and his two sisters off at her mother’s house before waving goodbye and turning away.
That was three months ago. Since then he has lived in a series of foster homes before landing here. His bed was an old army cot set up in the only space available. The narrow section in the pantry between the vegetables in dented cans and the wood stacked in the corner had become his bedroom.
He slowly crawled from the pantry to the kitchen. He couldn’t walk. Being confined most of his young life had left his legs weak, almost to the point of atrophy. From the kitchen he slid along the floor through the dining room. As the other kids shredded the wrapping paper on presents, Gary sat in a lonely corner of the room and watched.
The laughter and shouts were not something that he would be participating in today. There were no presents under the tree for him. There wasn’t a metal fire truck like what Bobby got. There weren’t wooden blocks like Tommy unwrapped. And there wasn’t a basketball like the one that Ryan opened. For Gary, there was nothing.
His foster parents weren’t mean people. It’s just that they had their hands full with three young boys of their own. His foster father’s job was just enough to pay the rent and put some food on the table. The mountain of toys that the other three boys climbed that morning weren’t even bought by their parents. They were donated by several families in town that knew there would be no Christmas for the children without their help.
But someone forgot to tell them about Gary. In the rush and excitement of the pending holidays, Gary’s arrival a week before had gone unnoticed. His foster parents, already being ashamed of not being able to provide Christmas for their own children, didn’t want to admit they had another young child living in the house.
Several someone’s forgot about Gary.
And that’s why I’m an advocate for the homeless. That’s why I speak out and agitate on behalf of those without homes of their own.
The homeless population can be roughly divided into thirds.
There’s the third that are on the street because of mental health issues or substance abuse. I’m not a social worker or a drug counselor – I can’t help them.
There’s the third that are on the streets because that’s the lifestyle they choose. I’ll try to make them comfortable by getting them a jacket or a blanket or something. But in the end, there’s not much I can do to help those who don’t want help.
Then there’s the third that – well, sometimes bad things happen to good people. These are the people that don’t want to be homeless and are working towards getting off of the streets and out of the shelters.
These are the ones that I’m here for. I’ve been told that I identify too much with the homeless. I don’t think so.
It’s just that I don’t want someone to forget about Gary.
Jerry Nelson is a freelance photojournalist living in Asheville, North Carolina. He has traveled the world documenting the tears, joys, laughter and lives of people everywhere. He currently focuses his attention and his camera on people, places and things in the United States. A portion of the proceeds from each photo shoot is donated to organizations that help the homeless in the communities in which he works. You can see more of his photography by clicking here.