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

Her roll of film won't help alleviate homelessness, but her role in the project brought to her what it was supposed to bring: empowerment, the chance to do something most people take for granted.

And things are looking up for Geartha Jones. Standing outside the row of small rooms that make up New Life, Jones, wearing pink slacks and a white blouse with pink flowers, her gold sandals revealing violet toenail polish, mentions the parenting and work-skills classes she has attended at the shelter. She refuses to criticize the place, forcing a smile and mumbling "yeah" when asked if the rooms are nice and comfortable. When she says "I'll be happy to get out of here," she seems to be talking about opportunity rather than reprieve. After six months at New Life, she explains, she'll be moving into her own apartment in Overtown. New Life is helping with the first month's rent, then she's on her own.

"I plan to get a job," she says. "I have some skills. I can be a cashier or a maid. But mostly what I want to do is to help others." And she vows to remember the people under the bridge: "Taking pictures was fun and sad. When the kids were pranking, that was fun. But seeing those elderly men under the bridge and over by the store sleeping on pasteboard boxes, well, that was sad."

Torquill Smith, who gives his age as "pushing 40," refuses to be identified as homeless, preferring instead the title of "homeless advocate." Sitting at a table outside World Resources on Lincoln Road Mall in South Beach, Smith chews lemons and mixes sarcastic humor, philosophy, and non sequiturs to the point where fact and fiction either blend or become irrelevant. For example, he flatly states he doesn't drink or abuse other drugs; later, though, when asked where he'll be sleeping tonight, he quips, "Wherever I pass out."

A former musician who shifted his interest to videography because he found music too "one-dimensional," Smith clearly intended to tell a story with his disposable Polaroid, primarily using Miami Beach to create a photo essay of signs, advertisements, and urban bric-a-brac adorned with words. A photo of a parking meter -- "time expired" -- follows a shot of a hand-written poster listing a store's beer prices, which follows "No Vacancy" and "Help Wanted" signs.... The theme is obvious: Society has many ways to point out that not everything is open to everyone.

But Smith, half laughing, dismisses such highfalutin analysis. "I'm not trying to tell you anything with these photos," he says, plucking a lemon seed from his lip. "I just went around looking for bullshit and snapping away. I was trying to help Keith Schantz deliver a product for Polaroid." However, Smith contends he felt qualified to participate in the project: "I'm involved with homelessness. I was given an objective. Now you should let the pictures speak for themselves."

With his hardened visage and dreadlocked hair, Smith could pass for a past-his-prime punk rocker. In fact he claims to have been one of rock's original punks. In the Seventies, inspired by the New York Dolls, Smith says he hung out with many of the New York City-based punk pioneers, playing in all-original rock bands the Nothing and Cyanide Sweeties. "I played music most of my life. I wrote on guitar, but I was a singer. This was the time of the Clash and the [Sex] Pistols, Dead Boys, Ramones. There was a high mortality rate. Sid and Nancy. I took [New York Dolls drummer] Jerry Nolan to St. Vincent's; he was comatose.... That's when I left New York."

In 1991 he bought a house in West Broward County. "There was no work along the lines of what I do," he says. "And so it was foreclosure, foreclosure, foreclosure. I didn't like boring suburbia, it was like living in L.A. or Long Island. I came to the Beach and started doing some video."

He moved from place to place, encountering problems with one landlord he accuses of throwing away his left-handed Les Paul guitar, CD collection, camera, and a tape of him jamming with the late punk icon Johnny Thunders. He says he has a place to stay in Broward County, but that he must spend much of his time on the streets of South Beach in order to stay in contact with the homeless network, particularly to conduct outreach.

South Beach's homeless situation is different from downtown Miami's, Smith observes. "It's a different mindset based on environment. Look at what it turns into after dark: Overtown is Fort Apache, the Bronx. Here it's the opposite." A downside, he says, is that police tend to be more active in bustling SoBe even as crime runs rampant across the causeways.

For the photo project, Smith worked with his friend Robert Estlinbaum, who looks something like Edgar Allan Poe. (The two also formed Video-Active Productions and pitched an educational day-care program called U.S.A. K.I.D.S. to the City of Miami Beach, which rejected the proposal.) "We work in tandem," Smith says. "We're kind of like Tweedledee and Tweedledum."

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