Homeless Memorial Day 2016: Looking for William
I began using my camera to focus on homelessness in the fall of 2014. I had been going into Philadelphia for thirty years and always looked the other way when I saw homeless people, as if they weren't there. It was time to change that and I hoped my camera would offer an opportunity to do something of value. So I began talking to homeless people and taking their pictures.
By early 2015 I had connected with One Step Away (OSA), Philadelphia’s street newspaper and with Depaul House, a transitional housing program to help homeless men regain their independence. I photographed many of their events and produced several photo essays. These relationships brought me much closer to the homeless and jobless communities.
In December of 2015 I attended Homeless Memorial Day in Philadelphia. Major cities hold memorials on the first day of winter to remember the homeless people who died during the year. I learned that people can slip into homelessness very easily, we're all just One Step Away. I also learned that homeless people can slip out of this world very easily as well- without making a sound. I described my experience in the photo essay: “Homeless Memorial Day 2015”.
Homeless Memorial Day 2016 was more personal. A OSA vendor that I was particularly fond of had declined significantly in early 2016. By mid-year he went missing without a trace. I attended Homeless Memorial Day 2016 to find out if he was on the list of those who died this year. He was not on the list, so at this point we still have no information about him. This photo essay is dedicated to William wherever he is, and to the homeless people who died in 2016.
The first time I photographed William was in March 2015. Quite a handsome man, he readily offered his big smile. The paper’s cover story “Finding Warmth In Suburban Station” applied directly to him as he was homeless.
As I got to know William better, he would complain about the aches and pains of his advanced age. I couldn't help razzing him because I’m a year older. But of course I slept in a warm bed while William was homeless. The first time he acknowledged having a place to stay was in early 2016 when he was finally able to rent a room. But it wasn’t very long before he was back on the street.
The cause of William’s financial problems was compulsive gambling. As soon as any money got into his hands he had to gamble: “I can’t help it; I can make a lot of money but I can’t stop until I lose it all.” As painful as this was to him, he never seemed to have any interest in changing. I once gave him my card and asked him to call me when he felt the urge to gamble… A well meaning but arrogant offer- he never called.
The next time I photographed William was for OSA’s Big Selloff in early February 2016. Vendors are paired with local business and civic leaders to sell papers for an hour. The vendors make extra money, it’s good publicity for OSA, and members of the community develop great respect for the vendors because it’s not easy to sell papers.
It was clear that William had changed significantly from the year before. He seemed to have aged, though maybe that was the new beard. But it was very noticeable that his beaming smile was gone.
A very serious William selling One Step Away papers.
Making the sale.
Shortly after the Big Selloff, I began work on a photo essay for the May 2016 issue of OSA- the vendor issue. The vendor issue showcases the people who work so hard to sell the paper which provides them a living wage and informs the public. The photo essay “Homeless Narrative” tells the story of homelessness through the experiences of the vendors. I interviewed and photographed twenty four vendors, including William. The full photo essay is available on this website.
I interviewed William in a restaurant. I photographed him continuously while we talked, but he didn't seem to mind. Light from the street cut across his face producing searing images.
William seemed tired but he was totally open. We began talking while he had coffee and a pecan role which he seemed to enjoy: “It tastes as good as it looks.” It was nice to see him enjoying this moment because there didn't seem to be much happiness in him.
How did you become homeless? “I’ve been a compulsive gambler since I was twelve years old; any money I get goes the same day- it wrecked my life; I stopped for five years but started again and everything has been down hill since then.” He admits to being mentally disturbed which causes the gambling- “No mentally sane person would be in the position I’m in today; I can’t resist the impulse to gamble.”
William was homeless four times in the last year. He slept in 30th Street Station or on a bus or subway. At the time of the interview he was living in a private home where he rented a room: “It’s pretty good, better than where I been; oh man, it’s horrible- you can’t lay in a bed; at 30th street you have to lay on the benches or on the floor; I feel much better… Now I can live like a normal human being.”
How long have you been selling OSA papers? “It’s been almost two years; it keeps money on me; I average between $40-50 per day which is no money because I have to buy food and my rent is $490 a month.” He’s also on disability: “If I didn’t have that I’d be dead; it’s easier to get a job when you’re young- no one wants to give you a chance when you’re older; people want to know what you’ve been doing all these years- what kind of resume do you have… I think about allowing people to do experiments on me, like if I snore- you can make thousands.”
How do people treat you? “Most people treat me ok when I’m selling papers, but some are mean and nasty; some people look down on me and say get a job… I just stand there and don’t say anything- it’s better to be nice; don’t add fuel to the fire; it’s lucky most people don’t treat me that way- if they did I couldn't sell the paper”
“I had a dream that a rich person wrote me a check for $50,000 so I could start a business.” (I couldn’t help thinking that the money would be gone the same day.)
What do you see for yourself in the next five years? “I want to be a better person than I am today; I want to help people and be with God; if I were with God now I wouldn't have any problems.”
What do you want the world to know about you? “I’m a small potato; I’m not known; if I went to a foreign country and got captured, no one would rescue me; I don’t care about my legacy.”
Thinking back on this conversation with William, he sounded so alone and forlorned. I guess he was, but I don't think he realized how many friends he had at OSA.
The next and last time I saw him was a couple of months later in Reading Terminal Market, which is where I start my days in Philadelphia. I saw him walking towards the rest room- he looked awful and sad. He said he lost his room because of gambling. He also said that he couldn’t sell papers but he didn't seem to know why which sounded very odd.
I immediately went to the OSA office at the Arch Street United Methodist Church. They confirmed that William lost his room and said that he had some health issues that wouldn’t allow him to sell papers. OSA and the church tried to help him, but it wasn’t long before he went missing. This saddened his friends at OSA… It also saddened me.
Homeless Memorial Day 2016
Homeless Memorial Day 2016 was held in Thomas Paine Plaza, just across the street from Philadelphia City Hall. The one hour program included music, speeches, prayers, and the reading of names while mourners held signs for each name read.
The signs arrived in unceremonious cardboard boxes.
Ready for pickup by mourners.
The memorial began with The Magic Music Group Drill Team. They electrified the crowd.
Drummers put heart and soul into their music.
The list of 200 names was at the podium. William’s name did not appear.
There were many speakers including Sister Mary Scullion, President and Executive Director of Project HOME, who spoke about the inhumanity and injustice of homelessness.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney spoke about Philadelphia's commitment to ending homelessness.
Neil Felix of The Welcome Church sang Dona Nobis Pacem- Grant Us Peace.
The mourners. As I learned last year: everyone looks the same when they grieve- how remarkable is that! We must all be the same after all.
As the program was coming to a close, The Circle of Hope musicians led the crowd in singing “This Little Light of Mine”.
The little lights did shine.
When the memorial ended, the signs were returned to the unceremonious cardboard boxes in which they had arrived. They’ll be used for the same grim duty at Homeless Memorial Day 2017, unless homelessness is ended by then.
Homeless Memorial Day 2016 did not list William among those who died this year. He has either found a new situation somewhere else in this world- which we hope, or has moved to the next world- without making a sound.
Published December 26, 2016