Shoot the Homeless

Ever since the camera was invented, it has been used to capture images of despair and destitution, evocative glimpses into the eyes of the less fortunate. Now one advocate for Miami's homeless has devised a way to focus the lens a little differently.

"The idea is to get the homeless person's perspective instead of someone coming in from the outside and documenting it," says Keith Schantz, director of policy and program development for the Miami Coalition for the Homeless. "If you can combine image with perspective, you might find it in yourself to do something about this problem."

This past week Schantz and others distributed 100 donated disposable cameras to homeless people in South Dade, downtown Miami, and Miami Beach. The assignment: Commit your individual perspective of reality to film. "No rules or restrictions," Schantz says. "We let them know that this is to be used to raise awareness and to raise money for the homeless. But beyond that, we just show them how to use the cameras. We take the first picture of them, then hand them the camera and try to confirm a time that they'll return it."

Schantz realizes chances are slim that every seven-dollar disposable will make its way back to the coalition for processing. "We know some cameras will be stolen, smashed, lost, or traded for clothing, food, or drugs," he says. "Each camera takes 27 color pictures. We hope to get back a third of the cameras, which would be 891 pictures."

Initially Schantz hoped to institute a food coupon exchange program to encourage shooters to follow through with the project and return the cameras. When that idea failed to develop, the Homeless/Formerly Homeless Persons Forum, a coalition program that comprises people who have lived on the streets or still do, had to improvise. Members of the forum are playing a key role in distributing the cameras, and at a meeting this past week they responded to the task of retrieving the used cameras by inventing incentives themselves. "A guy who's in rehab was at the meeting and he says, 'We have to use our heads to get them back,'" Schantz relates. "'If we have to give them a dollar out of our pockets or make them a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, that's what we'll do.' That's just the sort of decision-making and empowerment we're looking for."

Schantz, who is still seeking out a source for film processing, says that once everything is developed, he and others, including Miami-Dade Community College Wolfson galleries curator Amy Cappellazzo, will review contact sheets and cull the best images. By August they hope to be able to combine a fundraiser with an exhibition at the InterAmerican Gallery on SW 27th Avenue.

Better known for his night job A he managed the defunct rock band Natural Causes and now handles the career of ex-Causes singer-songwriter Arlan Feiles A the 32-year-old Schantz came to the homeless group from the Miami Coalition for a Safe and Drug Free Community last July. His job is to find ways to empower the homeless, educate the community, and raise funds. His first project, a voter-registration drive, signed up more than 200 street people. The photographic venture began to take shape in November, when the Polaroid Foundation donated the cameras. Since then Schantz and the forum workers have joined with the South Dade Homeless Coalition, the South Florida Interfaith Homeless Coalition, and various nonaffiliated volunteers to help with distribution and retrieval.

The project was inspired by a similar endeavor undertaken two years ago by the St. Patrick's Center in St. Louis. "Disposable cameras were distributed to the homeless for a day to photograph anything," recalls Barbara Weakley, who took part in that project. "It was a day in the life of a homeless, mentally ill person and what they might focus on. We gave out 50 cameras and found corporate sponsors. It was amazing how many different kinds of things there were, different viewpoints. It was a fascinating project and it was so well received that some of the pictures were hung in a restaurant [at St. Patrick's Center] that's used as a training program. Some showed up in a couple of galleries around town and now the exhibit is traveling. It was a really exciting thing to be involved with."

If all goes well in Miami, Schantz hopes to take his photo show to area schools and perhaps make it into a book. "We're also hoping to get cameras to people in North and West Dade," he says. "And we're telling the people distributing the cameras to make sure they go to women and children -- the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population in Dade -- so we don't just end up with the typical white-male perspectives. We want people to see this, because we're hoping the intensity of the homeless person's reality will deter homelessness and that these pictures will serve as an educational tool.


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