The inevitable interaction with the homeless.
I walk around downtown in Austin frequently; mostly for visual exercise and to keep tabs on the constant changes a growing city endures. I've never felt the need to make images of homeless people because unlike people with homes and offices they have little choice about their privacy, and I feel like the only fair targets for my cynical brand of "street photography" are those people who always have the implicit choice not to come out onto the public streets looking like circus clowns or psycho killers but who waive the choice and come along anyway.
But inevitably, in cities like Austin, San Francisco and NYC, which are more tolerant of homeless people, one is frequently accosted and asked for (or demanded of) money, spare change, etc. How do you handle this? If you gave a dollar to everyone who asked you on a given day's walk you'd soon be too poor to leave your house...
A lot of street people have a well rehearsed banter or scam. They're trying to get $xx dollars together to get a bus to XXXXX. Or some variation of that. Some are just plainly aggressive and will curse you and rant if you don't donate to their cause. But there are always some people who I feel are in serious physical or existential need. They are the ones who elicit feelings of .... for want of a better phrase .... social responsibility in me. Occasionally I'll walk by someone who looks and acts like they are really trying to keep it all together and they'll ask for a dollar or two to get something to eat.
I rarely (almost never) have cash with me just because everything I need to buy is easier to acquire with a credit card. Earlier this year I walked by the JW Marriott Hotel and on the corner of the building there was a guy in his mid forties who was neatly dressed, hovering over a worn and tattered backpack and looking.... defeated. He asked in a meek voice if I could spare some change. I said, "Sorry, I don't have any cash" and walked on. But there was something about his contenence that struck me. I paused in the next block and tried to put myself in his shoes. Vulnerable, hungry, exposed. I turned around and walked back.
The truth was that I didn't have a dime in my pocket. But my wallet was full of credit cards. I asked him what he needed the money for and he told me he hadn't eaten that day. I invited him to go with me to the burger concession on the street level of the hotel and order whatever he'd like. He ordered a chocolate milkshake, a burger and fries. I paid for it, walked with him to a table and made some empty small talk hedging toward the hope that things would get better. Then I walked away and let him enjoy his meal. But for the rest of the day his situation stuck with me. No privilege, no 401K, no local family, no network. How would I survive?
That was months ago but yesterday I walked through downtown and photographed at the Pecan Street Festival. On the way home I headed south down Congress Ave. and at some point, while walking in front of the CVS Pharmacy store, I was asked by a homeless person in a wheelchair for some cash. I gave him my knee jerk reply about not carrying cash. He responded, passionately, that he didn't need the money what he needed was some over the counter pain relievers. He was very specific. He wanted Alleve. He was in pain.
I'm no medical professional but I can sure tell, after 62 years of observing people, when someone is in real pain and distress. He was almost frantic. I told him I'd be happy to get him some Alleve and went into the store to find it. Then I bought him a bottle of water because... who takes Alleve without having something to wash it down with? Then it occurred to me that he might need something in his stomach because all those pain pills can mess with your gastrointestinal system, so I bought him a couple of protein bars.
I don't know and I don't care if it was some sort of scam because I saw a look of real appreciation and visceral relief on the young man's face. Partly because he would get physical relief but almost as importantly, because someone acknowledged and believed him. I told him that I was sorry things sucked for him right now and that I hoped they'd get better. I don't know if I believed circumstances would improve for him or not. But $11.95 is a cheap and temporary fix, and a long term reminder that most of us have no idea how precarious day to day existence can be. I walked a bit faster to get home to see my family.
We don't photograph street people, except when they ask for it, but going out into the streets, out of our cars, out of our safe neighborhoods, and secure zip codes reminds us that there's more to existence than how many channels we get on cable and how quickly we can get that desired lens to our house by using Amazon Prime.
Maybe, after all, breaking down our privileged isolation is yet another benefit of making photographs out in the street.
The idea I put in my brain when I head out to photograph: not everyone is running a scam. Some people are in need. Even if you feel you can't help financially a kind word, even a smile, might make the difference to someone. It must be painful to feel invisible.
If you are in a city with lots of homeless and you like taking photographs in the city center how do you handle these kinds of interactions? I'd be interested to hear what others have figured out...