Meditations on Homelessness by the Housed Part 2: Darkness Travels at the Speed of Light (especially in pictures)
Last spring, I made a new friend. His name is Mike Homner. Mike is a fellow anti-homelessness advocate with an interest in photography. He is also one of the minds that worked with Code for America to develop the innovative Upswyng App, which connects people experiencing homelessness in the Boulder, Colorado area with essential resources like shelter, healthcare, and access to the internet.
During a recent conversation, Mike, who has experienced homelessness himself, educated me on common issues with media depictions of homelessness. The dark, drab colors. The hiding of faces. The overuse of black-and-white and desaturation filters that give pictures taken this morning the feel of something from several decades ago. And so on. These aesthetic choices misrepresent homelessness by emphasizing certain, uncomfortable aspects while distracting us from others. A quick trip to the Google machine will verify this for you…
This darkness travels fast. While we might not actively feel swayed by the images selected to represent homelessness in the mainstream media, research in neuroscience suggests a strong link between being shown an image of homelessness and the activation of brain regions associated with feelings of disgust and dehumanizing of the other — literally the same areas of the brain that accommodate racisms, sexisms, classisms, and so on and ease the burden of ordering, accepting, or committing heinous acts like genocide. I have trouble believing this link is completely independent from the continuous display of homelessness as an exclusively dark and dangerous thing. Homelessness sucks. We should eradicate it. But the proportion of people I have met in encampments and shelters who are awesome is not different than the percentage of awesome people I have met anywhere else. The darkness travels fast, but so does the light.
Mike has taken a different approach to documenting homelessness and has even turned down offers to have his work featured in exhibits when he felt pressured to present in black and white. He snaps the highlights of homelessness — the smiles during a bright, sunny day; the excitement after a fresh haircut or a new pair of glasses; or the joy of someone who just finished a warm, thoughtful conversation. Mike does not pretend to capture the entirety of homelessness, nor does he have to. Instead, he focuses on the part most others miss — the incredible beauty and resolve of people just like you and me who have ended up on hard times.
The first widespread images of substandard housing arrangements in the United States hit the mainstream around 1890, when Jacob Riis published How The Other Half Lives. Prior to the publication of this book, many middle- and upper-class Americans were truly unaware of the horrors of the urban tenement. The filth in the street. The deaths due to overcrowding and poor ventilation. The pervasive fire hazards. Etc.
Riis’s work remains important. So does the work of academics, advocates, and policymakers exposing the very real horrors associated with homelessness — horrors that lead the average unsheltered person to die decades earlier than the average housed person. But there is more to the picture.
The sad reality is the American mobility system is broken. This can be demonstrated by sophisticated statistical analyses, the use of really neat mapping software, or by asking your rich and poor friends about their parents’ occupations. In the case of the careers we typically end up in and the amount of money we make, the apple usually doesn’t fall far from the tree across generations .
The system is broken and, unfortunately, so are many of the people who have been beaten down by the harsh realities of extreme poverty. But, with belief in the flexibility of the system to tolerate change; strategic work by advocates, policymakers, and academics; and faith in the resolve of people who are surviving rough circumstances, the solution to homelessness is squarely within our collective wheelhouse.
I think one important step in facilitating this change is giving people access to positive depictions of others who are experiencing life without stable housing —providing us an opportunity to wrestle with the cognitive dissonance of seeing homelessness paired with humanity, warmth, vibrant colors, and positivity. People experiencing homelessness are just that — PEOPLE. They matter just like you. And, if you are reading this from your home, I hope one day soon they are too.
Thank you, Mike, for allowing me to use your photos for this piece. And thank you to those pictured for smiling through it all. I hope you are all well.