I walked down to First Presbyterian Church yesterday with Tom. On Saturdays during the winter, First Pres opens their fellowship hall to the homeless — and well — anyone else that wants to get in out of the cold for a few hours and enjoy some sandwiches and soup.
Tom and I wait in line for some bean and ham soup and then find a couple chairs at a table in the corner. He and I are setting there glancing at the TV out of the corner of our eyes and chatting when “Don” comes over.
Now Don is a volunteer at First Presby. He volunteers several hours a month to come in and visit with and feed the homeless. He came over and sat with us. After making some small talk with Tom, he pointed to the camera on the table infront of me and then he said:
“Nice camera. Where did you get it?”
Pretty innocent question except for a couple things.
The tone and inflection in his voice clearly said, “That’s a damn nice camera. How did a homeless person like YOU get it…did you steal it?”
Now before you think I’m being overly sensitive, let me point out two things. First, you had to be there to fully appreciate the implication that was in his question. It was an implication that I cannot fully get conveyed to you in a small space. I did do, however, a “reality check” with Tom after he and I left to see if he got the same message in Don’s question that I did. He did.
If Don and I had’ve bumped into each other on Thursday night at Grove Park Inn while I was shooting the Jazz program, I really don’t think he would’ve made the same comment. C’mon, you don’t walk up to a total stranger in a resort and ask where they got that nice camera. If you did, then someone might think YOU were a potential thief and call the cops. Some things you just don’t ask.
But it seems ok to ask all kinds of questions of the homeless. It seems like it’s ok to still have a prejudice against the “un-housed”. I see it happen alot. Even among people who are in the profession of helping the homeless.
Seems like so many people have an “us-versus-them” mentality when it comes to reaching out to the homeless. I’ve met a few people that worked with the homeless population that are really great at understanding that any of us at any time could find ourselves on the street. But, for the most part, even care-givers fall into the mental trap of a condescending attitude.
Had an ex-gf one time that said that I identify “too much with the homeless….”. I’m not sure what she meant by that, but I’m positive she didn’t mean it as a compliment. But being the stubborn ol’ vet that I am, I took it as a badge-of-honor.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to say that I’m like any of these guys — nowhere near. But the folks that made the most difference in other people’s lives “identified” with those whom they were helping. Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Peace Pilgrim are just a few that come to mind. And again, I’m NOT trying to compare myself to these folks.
Just saying that change only comes about when people identify with the group that they are serving. We have to come down out of our governmental, bureaucratic, ivory-towers sometimes and roll around in the grit and dirt in the street before we can start to empathize and sympathize with those folks to whom we are trying to give a hand up — not a hand out.
The Civil Rights struggle bumped along in this country for about two hundred years with minimal and varying degrees of success. Many times taking three steps forward and two backward.
When the four little black girls were killed in the Birmingham Church blast; when Medgar Evers was killed; when the three civil rights workers were killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi; when Americans were able to start putting a face with the name — THAT’S when the progress of the civil rights movement moved light years. Sure, we have a long way to go…but the ten years following the murder of Cheny, Schwerner and Goodman saw more advancements in Civil Rights than any other ten year period in history.
So somehow we need to collectively realize that the homeless are just like us. Those living without houses want the same things in life that those with houses want: Food, safety, friends…
The condescending twits that perpetuate the “us-versus-them” mentality with regards to the homeless see the “un-housed” as being lazy, shiftless thieves.
Well, can I point you to Bernie Madoff? He wasn’t homeless. How about Jeff Skilling and the rest of the bozo’s at Enron who threw thousands of people out of work and stole millions and millions? They weren’t homeless.
So when you get a chance, c’mon down with me to Pritchard Park on any Sunday morning at nine o’clock. Get a cup of coffee and some grits from the great folks who serve there regardless of the weather. Mingle with the “un-housed”. I promise, not a single person will come up to you and say, “Nice camera…where did you get it”.
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 camera on the same topics in America. His work has appeared in such diverse publications as USAToday, CNN, Upsurge, Dream Row and others. A portion of his income 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.