and closeness to the women continued to grow. Over and
over I saw women enter and leave the shelter only to
return in weeks, months, or years later - each time
a little worse for wear. I wondered what happened to
them on the outside and why they didn’t succeed. Many
were deeply disturbed or alcoholic, but others, although
they had acute personal problems, appeared to be "normal."
What about their lives was different from mine? Was
it possible that I too could find myself homeless? I
began to see the workings of a social welfare system
that ostensibly aims to lift people out of downtrodden
paths, but all too often only succeeds in perpetuating
and sometimes fostering their inability to help themselves.
Over a period
of years I began taping interviews and photographing
those women with whom I had a developed rapport. As
my interest in the subject of homelessness grew, I began
talking to the women I met on the streets of New York,
then Boston and San Francisco.
many styles of homelessness. A few women are only temporarily
without shelter. Others will experience crisis after
crisis and will always end up on the streets. Some women
receive welfare for varying lengths of time and live
in "Single Room Occupancy" hotels. These S.R.O.
hotels are for many just a short stop on the cycle back
to the streets again.
are a mecca for people liking for excitement and adventure
in otherwise desperate lives. For some, the city means
hope and a blind stab at improving their circumstances.
Some get together
just enough money to get on the bus and trust that things
will work out once they arrive. It was with an adventurous
spirit that one of the women I interviewed ran away
from a nursing home in Illinois and came to New York.
She brought hope for something better and a desire to
see Macy’s. She came to New York the same way that someone
else might go on vacation. Only, she had no funds, no
place to stay, and no idea of what she was going to
do when she got there. She preferred the freedom of
testing her chances on the streets.
ladies are at the extreme end of the spectrum of homelessness.
They are often older and suffer from the effects of
the poverty and the social isolation of the middle-aged
and elderly single woman. May are mentally disabled.
They have come to a point of total adaptation to living
outside. Whether or not this is a "choice"
is debatable, but it is true that once a woman has moved
into the streets it is very difficult to help her return
to normalcy. Many women prefer independence to charity
and social services.
women on the streets was the most difficult part of
my work. I looked for places where they stayed and found
ways to approach them, but I found that some could not
carry on coherent conversations, and were frightened
and suspicious of me. If I could win their confidence,
they were often delighted at the chance for company.
It was often the first time anyone had listened to them
in years. They seemed pleased to have the chance to
express what they felt about their circumstances. Frequently,
though, after establishing contact with a woman, explaining
my project, and building a relationship with her over
several days, she would refuse permission for me to
take her photograph or tape our conversations. This
reluctance was understandable. Often the women said
they were ashamed and embarrassed by their situation,
felt responsible for what they considered the failure
in their lives, and did not feel they had any insights
on the matter worth sharing.