by Joanne Devereaux
Eighteen years ago when we first moved to the neighborhood, there was one, quite visible homeless man in the area. When my daughter, as a toddler, played at the Mandana Green, she asked me why he didn’t have a house to live in like we did. Many years later, as an almost-adult she asked me another broader question, Why didn’t I do something about the homeless?
It was soon after that question that I came across an article about an architect in Seattle who was greatly impacted by the homeless he saw. Rex Hohlbein had a successful architectural firm, but was disturbed seeing so many unsheltered people living close to his office. In 2011, he started a Facing Homelessness-Seattle Facebook page (that now has 50,000 likes) on which he began quite simply to share the stories of local homeless men and women. The photographic portraits have had a big impact, and have allowed for an outpouring of support in the past eight years to the specific individuals who have been photographed and profiled.
Within a few hours of reading this story, I contacted his office and talked to Rex about homelessness here in Oakland. He sent me their mission statement, along with other guidelines, and invited me to do similar photographs here in Oakland, which led to me doing just that for the past three years.
Initially, it wasn’t easy to approach and talk to people living on the streets. Most often I started with a simple, “Hello.” Over time, as I felt more comfortable doing this, I was surprised by the extent to which people welcomed these conversations. To cite one example, two sisters living on a bench along Lake Merritt for almost a year never let me pass by without checking in with them. Another example is Buck- a man many readers may recognize because he spends a good part of his day in front of Peet’s.
The photographs below with text in italics are selected from my posts on the Facing Homelessness Oakland Facebook page.
April 2016 Buck, came here when he was 30 years old. He was hesitant to talk to me, said he liked my shoes and I guessed he had been in the military. He laughed showing a nice smile, full of mostly missing teeth. He brushed both his hair and his beard and said the picture was a gift and I agreed. He is 62.
October 2017 Buck is a tall man and hard to miss when you see him on the street. Over a year ago I met him for the first time. He was sitting down so I didn’t realize how tall he was until I saw him last night walking down Grand Avenue. I didn’t get a chance to talk to him but was glad to see he is OK. Homelessness isn’t generally OK or a good place to be. The stories are complicated and never easy. Sleeping in the doorway of a retail store or restaurant is difficult at best. Buck sleeps on Grand Avenue and is not a part of our neighborhood. Say “hello” if you see Buck.
November 2017 Buck is back. On Grand Avenue early this morning, before either of us had any coffee, I had a chance to talk to Buck again. He is a VET born in 1954 from New Jersey originally. He said he wasn’t expecting to talk to anyone today so I’m glad I stopped to see him again.
January 2019 Yesterday I saw Buck – a homeless man many people walk by. The last few times we talked he was angry and hard to talk to. He’s thinner than I’ve ever seen him, still lost in a mental state where he is difficult to connect to. Buck is a Vet, he’s tall, still holding a neat stack of belongings and he needs help.