The idea is simple.
If you live in Happy Valley you know why we chose these locations.
The fact is that residents drive by the poor, the addicted, and the homeless
each day without registering the implications.
Perhaps some have found a way to see through them.
But because I've been homeless and on the street, I can't.
I had a difficult time deciding whether or not to incorporate actual homeless persons into this photo essay, although originally, I thought the idea was inspired. Today, en route from one photo site to another, L— asked me how the idea came to be. This one was a lightning strike. Sudden and fully developed the moment it drifted into my mental periphery. Several of my friends have been posting their social media contributions to the LDS Easter campaign #BecauseHeLives/#HeIsHere, and I felt prompted to jump on board, extend my outward expression of discipleship, offer my perspective on what the gospel of Jesus Christ means to me. I looked up the Church's webpage, and sure enough, they offer PDFs of the "He Is Here" Google Maps icon. So last night, after double checking with Mr. PNU that I wasn't doing something completely nutters (he's my sounding board, or check-in when I get ideas that I suspect might be detached from reality), L— and B— accompanied us to the library to print off an upside-down teardrop. I affixed it to the back of a Barque's root beer 12-pack case that I cut out square and then laid flat. Then I headed out with my sons to the places I know the homeless and the beggars frequent.
The first person I approached was John. I'd guess he's somewhere in his forties. His hair is gray and he wears a long grizzled beard, with the mustache neatly trimmed. I sensed he hadn't bathed for some weeks, or that his clothes were badly in need to washing. He rode up to Smith's Market on a bike laden with his worldly possessions in a few plastic shopping bags. He was immediately skittish as I approached. I tried to explain I was doing a photo essay, and offered him $5 to be in the shot. But he immediately turned me down, saying, "I wouldn't do it for five grand." Rather than walk away I continued talking to him, to try and explain where I was coming from. I didn't push for the photo, but I did offer the money without the picture. He still refused. Our conversation wandered about wildly. He mentioned evil and corruption, D&C 38, the Georgia Guidestones and the Bilderberg meeting. I quickly realized I was speaking to a paranoid schizophrenic, but I stayed and listened. For half an hour John expounded on the finer points of his conspiracy theories. I commented where I felt it applied, but mainly, I gave him my full attention and just listened. Toward the end of the conversation, John softened his tone.
"You know," he said. "I think I misread you."
I told him how important people were to me, and that the photo essay wasn't nearly as important as being out in the cold night, giving my ear to the lonely and forgotten souls who roam this city's streets. He nodded.
"Jesus never left us," he said. "He's everywhere, in our face. If ye have done it to the least of these."
John gestured to himself. "He is here."
I could tell he wasn't nearly so put off that I'd asked for his picture as when he'd initially responded. He'd felt it was an invasion of privacy. No matter how deluded his reasoning, John is a highly intelligent human being. He is terrified of NSA, of social security numbers, of being tracked and fixed in one place on a map. But as I prepared to leave he asked if he could have my phone number so that we might talk again. I've never felt quite so conflicted about my principles and my safety. I decided to give him my old number, to be on the safe side. But it still hurts that I was dishonest with him. I felt I was beginning to gain his trust, and John is one of so many who have no one to cling to. He took the piece of paper, split it in half and wrote several references he wanted me to look up; including Kelly Thomas, and Daniel Estulin. I shook his hand and he shook B—'s hand too. I hope we run into him again, but I suspect we won't. These people are good at disappearing.
As I lay in bed last night I promised myself I wouldn't exploit people for this project. And so today I employed L—'s help. I took her to each of the photo sites, and when we found Bruce and Albert already occupying the spot, I explained that I just wanted L— in the picture unless they'd like to do it with her. Both readily volunteered.
Bruce took my money as a girl he's working with walked up and gave him a few more dollars, warning him that cops had been harassing her, before she headed back around the corner. For all I know he's her pimp. We took the photo and left.
Albert, however, spoke to me and L— for an hour about his hard 65 years of living, and refused our money.
Albert was born two hours north of Happy Towne. He served in the National Guard in Germany for two years beginning when he was 19. He married and had four children. None of them will speak to him now. Albert has done hard time in prison—11 years—for crimes he admits were violent. Incarceration changed him, he said. He's been addicted to heroin for years, detoxed 10 times, relapsed 9. Many of his teeth are missing. He's worked a dozen jobs, but can't seem to keep focus for long. I asked him where he stays, and he told me that he's found a place where the land owners will let him set up his tent each night. He keeps the site clean, refrains from moving his bowels on the property. The land owners don't mind, and he tries to be discrete. He begs for money to buy food each day. If he gets extra he shares it with other homeless folk. Sometimes he panhandles enough to get a room at a Motel 6; a clean place, without bedbugs. He says his heart valves are faulty, that he needs an operation that will cost several tens of thousands. In the meantime, he rides a bike to stay fit and strengthen his ticker. I tell him the cigarettes will kill him, and he insists he only smokes 4-5 a day. Albert says people drive by screaming "nigger" every time he panhandles. He asks me if I know where the word comes from.
"The slaveowners called us that to dehumanize us," he says. "But it's those that yell nigger who don't understand. I'm not ignorant. I used to take classes from Westminster; got top grades before I fell in with the law. I hadn't learned my lesson yet. But I know now. I used to be a mean one before prison, before I quit the drugs and the drinkin'. Now I realize the importance of trust. Human beings have to be trustworthy and we have to trust each other."
A man drove up in a BMW. He rolled down the window and passed out a dollar that he said was for L—. He must have assumed she was panhandling too. Albert passed it right to her, but she tried to give back it to him, insisting that he needed it more.
"That man gave the money to you, said he wanted the girl to have it. He trusts me, and I want to be trusted."
As we prepared to leave I promised Albert we would pray for him. He thanked us. "That's what God wants us to do. To be concerned for each other. He'll take care of the rest."
Finally, I took L— to the catchout where drifters jump the train cars near our home. My daughter has been asking to see the camp for a year, and today I decided she's ready. I held her hand as we negotiated the embankment that slopes beneath the overpass. She carefully picked her way through the lava gravel, avoiding the spots where I warned her there might be human waste. Here, near the train tracks, there is evidence of much human activity. Comings and goings. Graffiti indicating connecting routes to take, places where transients best steer clear, phone numbers for those who need help. The camp is littered with discarded bottles of used toiletries, cigarette butts, empty food canisters, tattered clothing, an electric griddle, a Book of Mormon, a mattress, a molding lawn chair, a firepit, and a cooler labeled "take what you need and pleez replenish." All that was inside today was a pair of soiled underwear.
After taking photos and examining the new graffiti, L— and I scrambled back up the embankment. My daughter held my hand all the way back to 7-11 where we'd left our car.
"We're so blessed," she said over and over again. "We're just so fortunate."