See How We Are

When the Miami Coalition for the Homeless wanted a photo study of the area's street people population, it commissioned the homeless themselves

A tall, sturdy man with a salt-and-pepper beard, Popcorn stops at Miami Avenue and sits under the Metromover tracks. Buses and trucks and a few cars hustle for lane position. "I don't do drugs, period," Popcorn says. "I might drink a beer. But I can't even think about drugs. See, there's so much depression out here. So they go on drugs and they lose their minds. But you see a lot of people not on drugs who can't get a job. I admit, sometimes I catch myself walking down the street and talking to myself. I haven't slept in a bed in so long I wouldn't know how to sleep in one. I sleep up in here [the nooks and crannies of downtown just east of Overtown and Camillus House] and you never know if you're gonna get busted in the head at night."

When he received his camera, Popcorn hopped on a bus and traveled to South Beach, Coconut Grove, "all over, man. That's 'cause I wanted to do a good job. I just want to let the people know, all the public people, what kind of situation we're in, what's going on out here. I hope that they see the pictures and want to help. Maybe they'll see, maybe they won't. Personally, yeah, I think the pictures will make a difference."

Dressed in gray slacks, a T-shirt from the 1992 New York City Marathon, and a pair of ocher work boots, Popcorn suggests that the best way for public people to help the homeless is by making donations -- directly to the homeless. "These programs, all of them are just a big ripoff. It's a business for them, that's why they need to keep us homeless. They get a $100,000 donation and we can't get a decent meal. Come around and give somebody an old T-shirt or something and you'll get the best blessing in the world."

Soft-spoken and clear-eyed, Popcorn made for an especially polite photojournalist. He even made sure to get clearance for his metaphorical shot of an empty tourist bus. "I figured, if I can get a picture of this, this one would make a good photo," he explains. "I asked the bus driver first. I always ask first. I know I didn't need to, but I wanted to. Some people get an attitude [toward a street person]. But he was a nice guy, said, 'Sure, go ahead.'"

Popcorn pauses, looks down the rusty tracks, glances up as the Metromover zips by overhead, and raises his voice as a truck shifts gears on Miami Avenue. "Yeah, I would like to get on that bus in the picture. I'd go to the Bahamas or Trinidad, all those nice places. I've never been out of the country. This white friend of mine -- you know, there's all kinds of people out here -- he told me to go up to Lake Erie. Up to Michigan. I believe I could get a job up there. I plan to do that. An old white man wouldn't lie to me."

If 49-year-old Geartha Jones didn't have the sweet face and soft words of a mother, you might think she was jiving you. But when she expresses concern for "those people under the bridge," you can tell it comes from her heart.

Jones was born and reared in Dublin, Georgia, a small town southeast of Macon. At age twenty she married and came to Miami. She has two children, Rosezina, thirteen, and Joe, ten. A little more than a year ago her husband was convicted and sent to jail. Suddenly, Jones found herself on the street. "He was helping me with the kids, but when he went in jail I couldn't afford the rent on the apartment," she recalls. Fortunately, she almost immediately found a place at New Life Family Center in the Wynwood neighborhood. Run by the Christian Community Service Agency, New Life has for nearly six years offered refuge to intact families, couples with children, single male parents with custody of their offspring, and single females with or without kids. (Many shelters separate men and women). The agency currently has 60 residents living in fourteen family rooms, with one unit shared by three women.

As for her experience as a photojournalist for a day, Jones says, "My plan was to go out and take pictures of people on the street and under the bridge so maybe they can get help," she notes, referring to a homeless enclave located only a block or two from New Life. "So I was walking under the bridge to where the homeless people are. All the kids were running for the school bus, and I asked them to pose. I didn't intend to take the picture [shown here] -- I accidentally snapped it."

It's nonetheless telling: At New Life, children are everywhere. Beaming smiles, however, aren't. And Jones didn't encounter an abundance of grins during the rest of her shoot. "Once I got the camera, I spent two days thinking about what to take. When I went under the bridge, I asked permission and told them I was a photographer. Most of them said yes; none of them were rude. But they'd jump around when I was pointing the camera at them." Although those pictures weren't of the highest quality, Jones herself felt a sense of accomplishment. "I know the feeling of being homeless and I wanted to help [others]. When I was finished I did feel like I had helped."

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