Fifty-nine-year-old Bernard Arnold faces the camera in a winter cap and jacket, his eyes tired.
“I’m a vet — was part of the clean-up in ’72 and ’73,” the text beside his portrait says. “I used to do drugs when I was younger, but I don’t anymore. But it’s hard to get help. It’s a continuous cycle. I don’t want to start any trouble so I sit here, because it can’t hurt nothing. I just hate how people look at me.”
Arnold, like approximately 20,000 other Detroiters, is homeless, but in a few weeks his photo — and his story — will be displayed on a downtown building for everyone to see. Instead of serving as a desolate backdrop to the conversation of the Motor City, Arnold and other participants in the “Homeless Humans Detroit” photojournalism project will move to the forefront of an issue that may be more relevant in Detroit than anywhere else.
Nicole Hayden, a 23-year-old Wayne State alumna, sits at a table in The Bottom Line Coffee House on 3rd Street in Detroit, Arnold’s photo, among others, in a folder in front of her.
Hayden spent many afternoons on street corners interviewing people for HHD, offering food and water in exchange for a few minutes of their time. Some people were reluctant to talk, she said, but others were excited at the chance to punch a hole through the destructive stereotypes surrounding members of the homeless community.
“I’m a timid person to begin with, so approaching a stranger intimidates me, but the first step is the hardest,” said Hayden, creator and principal photographer of HHD. “Once you do that, everyone is so nice ... it usually takes no prompting; I ask one question and they just talk and talk and talk. There’s only been a few times where it’s just like I’m prying information out, and that’s fine.
“I want to figure out a way to connect them to opportunities,” she said. “This one man that I talked to, Bernard, he recognized his predicament but he was like, ‘I hate how people look at me. I hate how it makes me feel.’ But he didn’t know how to get the resources that he needed ... conversations like that, where they felt hopeless or didn’t know what to do, affected me a lot.”
Hayden said the project first began in a digital imaging class she took a couple of semesters ago, where she had to use “socially responsible photography” to address a specific issue. She chose to tackle homelessness because of the negative assumptions and criticisms she hears regarding people who ask for donations on the street.
“That just really bothers me,” she said. “I just don’t think it should matter, because if someone’s asking for help, they obviously need help. Does it matter? Are you going to judge them? These people make mistakes like I’ve made mistakes. If I wasn’t privileged enough to have a support system, I would not be where I am, you know?
“You just need one person to care about you,” she said, “and if you don’t have that, it’s hard.”
Positive feedback from the participants encouraged Hayden to expand the project after the class ended. In the process, she met Kenny Corbin, who curates the Woodward Windows project with his girlfriend, Alyssa BK. Although there’s usually an application process involved, Corbin was so impressed with her concept that he offered her space right away.
Hayden hadn’t had any specific goals in mind regarding the expansion, but “when someone is telling you (that) you can blow up your photos to like nine feet tall and put them on the side of a building, you can’t say no to that,” she said.
The installation for Hayden’s windows was completed several weeks ago, but a break-in shattered the glass and delayed her project substantially — and on the same day that the project’s Kickstarter was approved.
“That was so crushing,” she said. “I looked like an insane person downtown, running back and forth like, ‘someone broke my windows!’ And I was crying and it was ridiculous, but we have a new set of windows now and Corey Wheeler is designing it for me, so we’re working together.”
Corey Wheeler, also a WSU graduate, was the multimedia editor for The South End when he organized a similar project, “A Day with the Homeless,” in 2012. Using disposable cameras, homeless volunteers documented their day-to-day experiences and returned the camera to Wheeler in return for food and $15. Hayden had never met Wheeler prior to their current collaboration, but a mutual friend told her about Wheeler’s project. Hayden forgot about it until a few weeks ago, when she stumbled across it online while doing research for her own project.
After seeing Wheeler’s designs for “A Day with the Homeless,” Hayden felt that he would be a natural fit. “I had a different designer design the original layout and my logo — Theo Dillon ... but since then, Theo hasn’t been able to commit time anymore, so Corey is taking his place,” Hayden said.
The revamped project will be more expensive than the original and will be hosted at a new location, but it will also include two more posters. Hayden said she couldn’t launch the Kickstarter right away because of the modifications, but she expects it to go live within the next week or so, with a funding goal of $1,500.
If all goes well, Hayden expects the posters to be installed by the end of August, where they’ll stay for three to five months. She thinks the display will make a lasting impact on how people view homelessness.
“It’s really easy to be on the street and walk by someone even though they’re talking to you, or like it’s really easy to drive by them and not look at them and make a human connection and recognize that they’re equal to you,” Hayden said. “People just have so many judgments ... you should recognize people as humans and get their story before you impart judgments, so blowing up the photos that big, you cannot walk away from that. It’s huge.”
While Hayden talks animatedly about her plans, a man across the room speaks up while watching “The Avengers” on his laptop. “I’m homeless,” he says. Hayden offers him a spot at the table, and he in turn offers his own experiences with displacement.
“It’s hard to explain (how I became homeless),” he said. “PTSD, I guess? ... I was abused as a child, extensively, and the PTSD ends up — the easiest way to explain it is that certain things are very hard for me to do. Finding housing is one of them, to the point that if there’s a phone call I need to make, it can be paralytic."
“There’s not a place for me in this culture,” he said. “I’m alone, for the most part. It’s crippling and painful, but it’s where I’m at. It’s not something I have a choice about.”
“It’s really hard to talk to someone and walk away and feel helpless; it’s like you’re not doing anything,” Hayden said. “That’s our future goal — trying to figure out how to connect what we’re doing to make an impact on (the homeless themselves).”
To find out more about Homeless Humans Detroit, visit their Facebook page or the website at homelesshumansdetroit.com.