Thursday, June 09, 2016

Notes from Photographing Reno's Homeless and Vagrants


As I've been working on the Our Town Reno project lately, and its Instagram feed, documenting some of the issues affecting the homeless and the effects of gentrification in Reno, Nevada, including displacement and creating more houseless residents, here are a few street photography pictures depicting these realities.
A couple on 4th street, where most of the services are for Reno's neediest, explain their dire straits.

Many Reno residents pull their belongings with them whatever the weather, wherever they go. Some have shopping carts, others have trailers behind their bicycles. Some just roll luggage behind them. They are all of all ages, from all walks of life, from veterans to the newly unemployed, to families with small children, to youths and seniors.
Stars and Stripes often adorn the carts and wheelchairs of the older, white male homeless population. In the background, new development is planned.

Many of Reno's less fortunate who have pets can't go to the shelters with their most trusted friends, so they sleep on abandoned porches, in cars, warehouses, on couches of family and acquaintances, inside tents in hidden spots, underneath bridges, or in dilapidated motels. Many don't like the shelters anyway, saying they are like prison, with too many rules, fights and thefts. But they would like options for the coldest of nights or for when they are harassed.
Motels, which are plentiful in Reno, but not always that cheap, are a stopgap measure for many in transition, however long that transition is.

Couples are also separated at the shelters, so they often also prefer to go their own way at night whatever the conditions. Most services are centralized, and it's sunny many days in Reno, but not all days. Sometimes the wind is biting, or the snow piles up. Sometimes police will kick those sleeping outside at all hours telling them to move along, that they aren't wanted where they are, even if in a public place. Sometimes, misfits attack the homeless, like it's Clockwork Orange all over again, but it's real.


Tim Henson and his pet dog, out on the streets of Reno in 2016.

I've been asked if people know I am photographing them. Sometimes yes, but sometimes no. Poverty is a reality. I want shots to be candid. I use a cheap camera so it can click quickly. I am a stay at home dad, so I don't have much time to seek out stories and pictures, but find them mostly on my commute.


Rolling luggage, whatever the weather, is a familiar scene in downtown Reno.

I want to portray people in their Reno environment, on the go, walking the streets, going from service to service, or being idle, at a stoplight, in a park, panhandling, or just surviving. There are many Renoites walking around, alone, often times with their belongings, at all hours of the day. Some are always wearing warm clothes, as they never know when the next cold wind will bite them.


A man slips behind a corner wearing warm clothes on a sunny day in Reno.

As Reno rebrands, and pushes to new development and expensive breweries, shouldn't we have concerns for the less fortunate among us? As wages stagnate and the price of housing rises, studies show the extremely poor are getting poorer and poorer, their life more violent, wracked by drugs, alcohol and sexual abuse.


The homeless are often accused of being dirty. But their lifestyle of walking and riding bikes, and canning, pollutes much less than the affluent who want their parks to appear green and clean, while they drive by with their SUVs.

As more and more old homes are being condemned, and motels shut down, replaced by high end projects, affordable housing is becoming more and more rare, pushing more and more people to the brink, or kicking them away.


A man takes a break on the porch of a condemned home in downtown Reno.

Some of the homeless say they are gambling addicts, whose luck ran out. Here in Reno, despite all the efforts, the main street, Virginia street, is still a succession of casinos, loan sharks, pawn shops, abandoned buildings, including casinos, also out of luck, and old motels, all of them with colorful names and vintage signs of an American Dream distorted. Some want to keep the signs, but tear everything down.


Reno's many contrasts are often juxtaposed on downtown blocks.

The main 4th street service corridor is being rebranded as "Victory Way" for breweries and arts. But who are the victors? And will there be losers? Some of the hip shops in Reno's lauded, somewhat experimental "Midtown" area are already being priced out. Will Wells Avenue be next?


A woman with her belongings watches on a side street as a parade is being prepared in front of the main homeless shelter on 4th street, where a brewery now sells expensive beer right across the train tracks. The event brought residents together, but just for a few hours, before they dispersed again to their separate paths. Some who attended drank beer at the new brewery, which fences off the homeless population.

Below a collage of more of my recent street photography illustrating some of these difficulties. As a community can't we do better and help each other out more, and not turn a blind eye to those who are suffering and struggling so much among us?


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