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Agency asks homeless to tell their stories through photography

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For a few weeks in April, 100 residents of three counties were asked to capture a glimpse of what it looks like to be homeless – telling their stories via photography from the streets.

Residents from St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties – all of whom are homeless – were equipped with 100 disposable cameras, beginning April 18, and asked to document their lives. The cameras were collected on April 26 so that the photos could be reviewed by a panel of seven judges who will select the top 20. Those photos will be exhibited June 29 through Aug. 20 at the St. Peters Cultural Arts Centre and the public will be asked to vote on the best one by way of online donations. At a dinner auction on Aug. 19, three winners will be announced and the top 20 framed photographs will be auctioned to raise funds for Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service programs that help people in need.

A traveling exhibit featuring other photographs from the project will be displayed locally at churches, schools and libraries.

Participants who complete the photo assignment will receive backpacks filled with basic supplies and gift cards for food. The photographers of the three top photos will also receive prizes.

The project, called “In Plain Sight – Homelessness Exposed,” is sponsored by Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Services, with a group of other co-sponsors that include Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital, Progress West Hospital, Ameren Missouri, Calvary Church and Behlmann Automotive – Troy. It is more than a fundraising event, organizers say. The idea is also to put a face on the harsh realities of poverty even in a prosperous and growing suburban area where many think it does not exist.

Pam Struckhoff, director of program services for Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service, perhaps the largest social service provider in the three-county area, said she worked with a man last August who she first saw sitting out in front of a gas station on a hot day when she drove along Muegge Road near Hwy. 94.

“He had been sitting up there for a week and I stopped one day and I had my daughter with me and she almost had a fit. ‘Why are you talking to strange men?’ she asked. That’s my job,” Struckhoff said. “He was just sitting there with a cup of ice. He was just sweating and sweating – he was going to die out there.”

Struckhoff took her daughter home, got the man a hotel room and eventually got him into more permanent housing. “What struck me was everybody kept saying, ‘Well there’s no homeless people in this community – I don’t ever see homeless people.’ These are people who live on my block. And I said, ‘You drive by this area every day. He sat out there every day – some of the Ameren contractors would take him on jobs – he sat there every day and nobody saw him? Do you choose not to see him or did you really not see him?’ It’s very hard not to see.”

Giving people an inside view of the lives of homeless individuals and families may open more eyes, Struckhoff said. To do this, the agency “street team,” which actively works with the homeless, identified about 100 persons who they thought might be willing to take a small Fuji Film camera and capture their lives. The cameras were given out to a diverse group of people – seniors, single men and women, families – at soup kitchens, churches and other locations. The participants were given a quick tutorial and told to bring back the camera in about a week.

“What we’re asking them is what you want people to know,” Struckhoff said. “Take pictures of what you want people to know about your lives because I think there is such a stereotype that surrounds homelessness. These are regular people like you and me and their lives are just different, they just happen to live on the streets.”

Some homeless individuals have jobs that don’t pay very much. Some live in tents in the woods, at shelters, with relatives or friends, under bridges, near public parks and in cars. Struckhoff said homeless people often are underemployed or unemployed, many don’t have high school diplomas and some are victims of “generational poverty.” They grew up like this and it’s what they know, she said.

“What strikes me is that these are people who are just like you and me, and you look at them and you think, ‘Wow, how this did happen’ because you know they were loved, they had a mother or father or somebody in their life who loved them and they are out here on the streets and it is a hard life,”  Struckhoff said. “We always hear that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, unfortunately, we all don’t have the same boots.”

Struckhoff hopes the project will be a way to educate people about the need in the tri-county area and reach potential donors – perhaps even someone who could donate housing. This year, the agency has helped in providing housing for 90 to 100 people in the tri-county area at a cost of about $100,000. “That’s a lot of money,” she said. “If you do the same thing over and over again, people stop listening to you.”

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