A mother walked through the soup kitchen line, looking shell-shocked, while her young, blonde daughter cheerfully assessed the dessert selection. The arrangement of cookies, cakes, and candies excited the curly-haired girl, and distracted her from the new reality weighing heavily on her mom. The mother stood there, stunned and vulnerable, perhaps wondering where they will sleep tonight – or how she will keep her young daughter safe in their new life of homelessness. Suddenly, tears started streaming down her cheeks. Without saying a word, a volunteer embraced the woman in a hug, offering comfort and empathy, and hopefully activating the will to take on her uncertain future.
Tonight, over half a million people in cities across America will be sleeping outside, in emergency shelters, or in temporary housing. These individuals and families might be seen under a bridge, on a bench, in an alley, or in a motor vehicle. Most, however, will be invisible – out of public sight.
Volunteering over the last six months at a soup kitchen in Livermore, California supplied me with a direct and personal connection with the homeless situation. I quickly learned that homelessness isn’t a dubious circumstance that affects someone else. While it is easy to paint a hobo as a dirty, unmotivated, drug addict with mental problems, and sleeping in the alley of a big city, some homeless people are somewhat quintessential. Many ordinary Americans who have encountered hard times struggle with standing upright and oftentimes need assistance to get back on their feet. Significant life-changing events, such as divorce or a job lay-off, can quickly thrust one into homelessness. This is especially true in regions of California, where the exorbitantly high cost of living requires a substantial income just to live at the poverty level.
Homelessness is not only a “big city” problem. The homelessness issue pervades the suburbs and small towns of America. Of the 578,424 homeless counted in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, forty percent lived in smaller cities and suburbs. According to Alameda County’s 2013 Homeless Count, approximately 76 people were homeless in Livermore, California. Fifty-three percent were women and 13 percent children. Counting the homeless is not a precise science and the actual numbers are likely higher. Irrespective of the exact number, the fact that we have homelessness in a relatively affluent region is shocking.
We are all neighbors in the greater world community. As one would lend a cup of sugar to a neighbor, we should lend a hand to our homeless neighbors in need. “Under the Alder Tree” is a long-term photojournalism project covering homelessness in Livermore, California. I hope through this project, I can help you get a better understanding of this situation, so that we can raise awareness and help our neighbors-in-need get back on their feet. I plan to document people’s stories in words and photos, while treating everyone with dignity and respect.