I'VE SEEN HOMELESS PEOPLE, of course, but until I approached them with a camera I had never studied their faces; never heard their stories; never understood how hard it is for people to hold themselves together when every form of external support has been taken away.
A few of the people in this gallery are homeless by choice – the kids, for instance, who ride the rails. They drink a lot and live in packs but when it stops being fun they go home. Others are homeless not by choice but because they can't hold a job due to mental illness or addiction. And even if they qualify for the highest amount of welfare, SSI, ( $889 a month), it's not enough to live on in the Bay Area. Mothers in California have even less support. After the welfare-to-work program passed in l996, a mother of four will get less than $900 a month for a maximum of four years during her entire lifetime! Felons coming out of jail or prison have a particularly hard time as they are banned from staying with family or friends who live in most kinds of low-income housing. And without a network of family or friends who can give them work, imagine how difficult it is to find any kind of job. For some felons the risk of going back to prison makes more sense than living on handouts.
Still, most homeless people aren't criminals. In West Oakland the homeless are majority black, and usually between 45 and 60 years old. They don't victimize; they are victims.
I rarely photograph people without asking for permission and if possible I return to give them a print. The ethics of photojournalism prevents me from giving my subjects money, even though I do give money to random homeless people on the streets.