During the summer of 2016, I had the opportunity to intern at The Curbside Chronicle, a local street paper in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. A street paper is a paper sold by the homeless and acts as source of income while also teaching reliability and responsibility to help get them off the street and reducing panhandling. The Curbside Chronicle is a part of the Homeless Alliance, which consists of around 30 different organizations. The Homeless Alliance is located in a brand new facility and includes a day shelter which provides two meals a day, showers, and access to medical and veterinary services. There is still a lot of work to be done to help the homeless in Oklahoma, but the Homeless Alliance is a step in the right direction.
A common approach to human rights revolves around the phrase “living a life of dignity.” The homeless are not able to live their life with true dignity. How can you live a life of dignity when you are reduced to begging, sleeping under bridges in extreme heat and cold, and not knowing when your next meal or real shower will be? Homelessness is an extreme problem in the United States and around the world, yet it is commonly overlooked because of negative stereotypes associated with the homeless. People are scared because they associate homelessness with mental illness or substance abuse. While a large chunk of those who suffer from chronic homeless fit into this category, that doesn’t make them bad people. They just simply need help. This internship helped me to become more educated about the human rights issues involved with homelessness. By seeing the issues firsthand, I can now begin to understand the hardship that these people undergo on a daily basis and this has inspired me to try and help them in whatever way I can.
I chose this internship because it allowed me to combine my two majors, photography and international human rights. Recently I have been struggling with what I am going to do after I graduate and this internship has helped me start developing a plan. That being said, I chose this internship because of the street paper appeal rather than the issue it covers. Before this internship, I knew that homelessness was a problem in the United States, but I didn’t really understand it. I figured that homelessness was due to mental illness or substance abuse. In many cases, these issues factor heavily into why some people are homeless. Because of this, I was a little bit nervous going into my internship. I had never really been around someone who suffers from extreme mental illness or someone who uses drugs. I simply didn’t know what to expect and sometimes the unknown can be more nerve racking than the known.
As my internship progressed, I began to learn more and more about homelessness. I learned that, while a majority of the homeless do suffer from mental or substance abuse illnesses, there is also a third group of people who simply have had bad luck, such as losing a job and not being able to find another one. Homelessness is like a multi-tiered pyramid. Each level represents a different group and each group needs different levels of help. Those at the bottom of the pyramid, who suffer from mental illness, need more help and supervision than those at the top who might just need help finding a job and an apartment. Many people, unfortunately, do not see homelessness as a pyramid shape. They just see it as one issue. The problem with the single issue view is that it makes it extremely difficult to help fix the real underlying issues of why an individual is homeless. The Homeless Alliance does an excellent job at working and understanding this multi-tiered system and has developed accordingly. There are numerous organizations to help each tier level and several that work across tiers to help bridge the gaps. The Curbside Chronicle primarily focuses on those who need a little boost to help get them on their feet again. As a result of this focus, a majority of The Curbside Chronicle’s vendors are able to raise themselves out of homelessness.
In addition to working with The Curbside Chronicle, I also partnered with an art class called Fresh Start, which is located in the day shelter. Over the course of two months, I put together profile pieces about the artists for an August 2016 art show so that potential buyers of their art would know more about each artist. Fresh Start is a great program; it provides participants with a source of distraction and many of the artists equate it to therapy. It also allows artists to make some extra cash while providing free supplies. The only complaint that I have heard about the program is that the artists wish that it was more than two days a week! Working with the artists at Fresh Start was the highlight of my internship. It is not very often that I get to spend so much time on a photo project, considering busy schedules and deadlines. Because I was able to spend two full months on these profile pieces, I was able to really get to know the artists in the class and they opened up during their interviews. It was fun talking to them about a variety of topics and hearing their personal stories. It was also interesting to see their art progress over the course of the summer and how their moods affected their work. Although I enjoyed talking to every artist, there were four in particular that I really connected with and who each taught me a different lesson: Willis, Rose, Rocky, and Donato.
Willis is an older gentleman who works the night shift at Walmart. I met Willis on one of the first days of my internship, before I even started working on my project at Fresh Start. My supervisor wanted me to spend the day getting to know people over in the day shelter, so that it wouldn’t be a surprise when I started showing up with a camera. To get me started, she introduced me to Willis. I ended up only talking to Willis and one other man that day, because I talked to both of them for so long. Willis and I talked about a wide variety of topics ranging from his wife and his favorite types of art, to some of his favorite vacations as a child. Willis is extremely hard working and had been building a model of the USS Constitution for the past seven months. It is amazing the amount of detail and hard work that he put into his ship. Willis taught me my first valuable lesson about homelessness. He showed me firsthand that homelessness can happen to anyone. Every day Willis breaks the common misconception that the homeless are lazy. Willis is one of the hardest working individuals I have ever met. I honestly do not know when he sleeps and I am glad that I got the pleasure of knowing him this summer.
Another one of my favorite artists is Rocky. Rocky’s art is quirky, which reflects his personality. One piece that he has been working on for the past year is a cardboard box which is painted like brick on the outside, but on the inside looks like a living room with all these funky moving parts. He also bought a cheap blue tooth speaker so that it can play music. He has a baby doll’s head that is white, which he has attached to a light source so that the eyes glow. Rocky also does amazing paintings with unique patterns. Rocky showed me the importance of programs like Fresh Start. Fresh Start acts as a confidence booster to the artist. Every time I see Rocky, he is walking around with a big smile on his face, talking about his art and how he is a professional artist now. Fresh Start provides Rocky with a different mindset and inspiration to accomplish his goals. Rocky taught me the importance of empowering those who feel powerless.
Rose is one of my favorite artists to watch work. She is constantly working on five different pieces at the same time. She works extremely hard and isn’t afraid to get down and dirty. One of my favorite pictures that I captured of Rose is her holding a big paintbrush in her mouth. Rose taught me how hard it is for those who struggle with addiction. I didn’t know about Rose’s addiction to meth until her interview for her profile piece. Rose’s interview was by far the hardest to get through because she broke down crying several times. A few days before I interviewed Rose, she had thrown her boyfriend out because she caught him doing drugs in their bathroom. She was devastated because she had lost someone that she loved; however, she was also extremely proud of herself because an acquaintance of hers had just come over with some meth and she said “no”. As I was conducting this interview, I saw the devastation fill her face. As the interview progressed, I saw her face fill with pride. Rose showed me the constant battle that one faces while struggling with an addiction and taught me the power of inner strength.
Although Willis, Rocky and Rose all taught me valuable lessons, Donato taught me the most about homelessness. He made it his mission to help educate me this summer. Donato is very intelligent and loves to learn. He was fascinated by the fact that I am studying human rights and we talked at great length about various human rights abuses around the world. Donato taught me about the different types of homelessness and what it is like to actually be homeless. If I am in Oklahoma City this winter, he wants to take me around taking pictures of the harsh conditions that the homeless have to live with. He also is interested in starting a magazine that depicts what it is really like to be homeless. His vision for the magazine is for the proceeds to go towards building and maintaining a homeless shelter in Oklahoma City. I helped him get in contact with my editor so that she can help him figure out how to get the magazine up and running. Once it is up, I’ve offered to help him with photography. I don’t know if this magazine will actually get produced, but I do know that if Donato really wants it, he will find a way to make it work. I’m truly grateful that Donato took the time to help me understand the different levels of homelessness and shared with me stories about his life.
This internship truly changed how I view the homeless and I am going to deeply miss the artists that I have gotten to know during my time here. I plan on visiting them when I am back in town. Since my internship, I have become more aware of the number of people living in chronic homelessness in the United States. I have noticed the pressing need to educate the general public on homelessness and break the homeless stereotypes that they have formed in their minds. I believe that if this negative stereotype is broken, then more people will be more likely to help the homeless and become their advocates. Street papers like The Curbside Chronicle are breaking these stereotypes by creating positive business transactions between the homeless vendors and the customers. This helps educate the customers through their interactions with the vendors and through the articles inside the magazine, while also empowering and teaching responsibility to the vendor. I believe the next step to help those living with chronic homelessness is to increase the circulation and number of street papers. Currently there are about 150 to 200 street papers worldwide. After I graduate, I would like to join one of these street papers, or start my own, and aid in the fight against homelessness.
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