Portraits of homelessness

What is the state of affordable housing and homelessness in America? And who are we talking about when we talk about “the homeless?”

Affordable housing, thoughtfully planned and properly supported, is one of the most effective ways to improve communities, uplift families, and support a healthy America. Without a well-functioning approach to affordable housing, too many families and individuals are falling through the cracks and slipping into extreme poverty and homelessness.

On his blog for the Nation and Bill Moyer’s Sequestration Watch, Greg Kaufmann spotlights poverty and homelessness in America, including the very real effects of sequestration on the most vulnerable in society.

Several weeks ago, he wrote about the need to understand the state of homelessness in America before trying to fix it:

I respectfully submit that to push an aggressive agenda to reduce poverty—and especially to create the kind of popular pressure needed for Congress to support it—a whole lot of work needs to be done to bust the myths and stereotypes that surround the issue.

One of the best ways to do that? Hear directly from people “in the trenches fighting poverty”—many of whom are living in poverty themselves.

So here is my proposal: a series of hearings—not a one-off, or a summit—featuring people who know poverty firsthand—those living in it, and those who are on the ground fighting it.

Both parties should be allowed an equal number of witnesses—none of this “majority gets three witnesses, minority gets one witness” silliness. Let’s have an open, fair and respectful debate—the kind Americans are always telling Congress that they want to hear.

Many of us– including me– have preconceived notions of homelessness. Even if we’re compassionate toward the less fortunate, we often have inaccurate ideas reinforced through the media and society. For instance, it’s easy to assume that the vast majority of those without homes are single men struggling with substance abuse. In reality, the number of families without homes is skyrocketing, thanks not only to the recession, but also sequestration.

I’m as guilty as anyone of looking at the latest analysis and research and stopping there. And understanding the facts on the ground is vital to understanding homelessness. However, we must also see those without homes as individuals, as unique human beings, not simply statistics and numbers on a chart.

Kaufmann describes the life of Tianna Gaines-Turner, an anti-poverty activist:

Gaines-Turner and her husband both work and have three children—a 9-year-old son on the honor roll in fourth grade, and 5-year-old twins who are entering kindergarten. All three of her children suffer from epilepsy and moderate to severe asthma.

She earns $10 an hour working part-time for a childcare provider, and her husband earns $8 an hour working the deli counter at a grocery store. They aren’t offered health insurance through work, and earn too much to qualify for medical assistance. She, too, suffers from asthma and writes that she “currently can’t afford to get an inhaler.”

Because Congressman Paul Ryan would not allow her to testify in person, she offered written testimony to the House Budget Committee’s recent convening on poverty. She states:

I worry about a day that might come where my children won’t be able to see a specialist because I can’t afford the co-pay.… Just like you want the best for your children I want the best for my children. […] Poverty is not just one issue that can be solved at one time. It’s not just an issue of jobs, or food, or housing, or utility assistance, and safety. It’s a people issue. And you can’t slice people up into issues. We are whole human beings.

Photographer Jan Banning’s stunning collection, Down and Out in the South, shows us some of the faces of homelessness– young people, veterans, couples, and families.

Banning explains, “I wanted to photograph them in a studio setting, against a neutral backdrop, focusing on their individuality rather than on stereotypes. In essence, I want to show who they are rather than what they are labeled.”

You can find Banning’s collections of startling and humane photographs here, and you can keep up with Greg Kaufmann’s analysis on poverty and homelessness at the Nation.

About Holly

Holly Jensen is a writer and poet who has worked with nonprofits and businesses for over a decade. She also serves as editor of The Ghazal Page, an international literary journal.
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