New Photography Book Chronicles Lives Of Local Homeless
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
In our efforts to help the homeless, we often overlook the possibility that they might have something that could help us. People who've learned to live rough on the streets can have a wisdom and resilience most of us will never know. San Diego photojournalist Susan Madden Lankford documents these hard lives, and hard lessons in her new book of photographs
The Homeless Call to Action event will be held December 1 from 5 to 7 PM at 655 West Broadway in downtown San Diego.
DOUG MYRLAND (Host): I’m Doug Myrland and you’re listening to These Days on KPBS. In our efforts to help the homeless, we often overlook the possibility that they might have something that could help us. People who've learned to live rough on the streets can have a wisdom and a resilience most of us will just never know. San Diego photojournalist Susan Madden Lankford documents these hard lives, and hard lessons in her new book of photographs called “downTown U.S.A.: A Personal Journey with the Homeless">Downtown U.S.A.” She recently spoke about the book with These Days host, Maureen Cavanaugh.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Interviewer): Susan, the image on the cover of this book is striking and it also has a story connected to it. So could you describe the picture and tell us the story?
SUSAN MADDEN LANKFORD (Photojournalist): The picture is a mural of Frida Kielo’s eyes and on the Carnation Building, up on top, were Picasso’s eyes, and Picasso looking down at his sweetheart, Frida Kielo. And they had had a special type of relationship off and on for many, many years. The artist is Mario Torero. He’s a muralist. And these murals were removed then they were put back up, and then the buildings were removed. But I happened to take the photograph, not because of the mural but because of the individual who was totally passed out right smack in the center of the nose of this mural. And it was a Sunday morning, I was with my family. I was showing them what I was doing downtown and my husband was saying, oh, my God, this is scary, and said, you’re not getting out of the car. I said, I have to get this shot. And I took it, and I never dreamed that someday I would have it as the cover of my book but I proudly do.
CAVANAUGH: Now didn’t someone try to stop you from taking it and said, hey, don’t take a picture?
LANKFORD: That was a few blocks later…
LANKFORD: …when there was somebody else that I was trying to do a little study of who was very, very active pushing a cart, and I had seen her on the streets before. And a fellow by the name of Jed came across the street and said, hey, ma’am, what’re you doing taking a picture of that lady? You don’t have any right doing that. With that, my husband got out of the car because he saw me talking to this big fellow. And Jed said, let me show her a little bit about the streets, let me take her around. She’ll be safe with me. And so I met him on Monday morning and we started looking at the streets.
CAVANAUGH: Now, let me take you back a little bit. You were renting the old Seaport Village jail for commercial fashion photography. How did that idea change?
LANKFORD: From doing the jail or from…?
CAVANAUGH: From the commercial fashion photography.
LANKFORD: Well, I was in this funky old jail, which I’d never been in a real jail and this jail had been shut down for years and I was renting it from the city manager. And I had fabulous ideas that I wanted to set up and I had started doing the fashion shots but homeless people saw me unloading the car and going into this facility. Unbeknownst to me, they slept in it, many of them slept in it. And I had to use a lock and key to get in the facility but they tried to show me how they got in the facility. They had their own secret ways. And they said, let us take you out and show you what the street life is about. And I said, no, no, no, I’m doing some commercial shoots. Oh, no, no, no, you don’t want to waste your time in a place like this. What’re you doing in a place like this? And they said, if you want to know about jail, we’ll tell you about jail. And then I discovered that many of the people on the streets were coming in and out of the jails. None of this made any sense to me.
CAVANAUGH: So where did they take you to find out what life on the street was about?
LANKFORD: Each one of them had a different way of living on the streets. The ones that I met up with were not the chronically mentally ill; they were individuals. They had drug habits, they may have had a dual diagnosis for all I know. I’m not a psychiatrist. But they had their own patterns of how they lived on the streets and they called themselves street people. They’re very zany. They’re very dynamic. They’re strong, strong characters, and in the book the character comes out. And it also, the book also reveals the pitfalls that people can go through, the experiences that they can have that can lead them to the streets. It’s not just an economic issue, it’s not just coming back from a war. And I don’t mean to put those things down but we trivialize it and we think that’s what happens with homeless. It’s much more complicated. It’s a huge world. It’s another world, it’s another society. It’s a microcosm of our huge macrocosm of society.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with San Diego photojournalist Susan Madden Lankford and we’re speaking about her new book of photographs called “Downtown U.S.A.” You took most of these photographs and met most of these people in the nineties, right?
LANKFORD: That’s correct.
CAVANAUGH: Now you said they’re very dynamic and they’re very, very strong. You met a number of people that you profile in the book. What – Tell us about Papa Smurf.
LANKFORD: Papa Smurf was – He – When – The first time he met me, he was very, very upset. I was outside the Shell station on 10th and I was taking a picture of a homeless breakfast where an elderly gentleman would come by with baloney sandwiches and with sodas and hand them out and there would be, maybe, 75, 100 people there. And I started to take some shots of this group of people, not getting faces, when this little man came about swearing at me and he went over to the telephone and started to call the police. Well, it wasn’t too long after that that we made friends and he said, I’m going to call you Baby and you call me Papa. And I – He said, we’ll tell you all about what this is all about. And he tried to explain to me what the 4-Fs were, which is ‘find ‘em,’ ‘fool ‘em,’ ‘eff ‘em,’ and ‘forget ‘em.’ And I knew this guy had some type of a personality I’d never run into before but by that point in time there were three or four different homeless people who were coming down either to the jail and then soon I had a work loft and I’d take my children to school, I’d drive downtown from beautiful north county and I’d hang out in the streets with these dynamic characters.
CAVANAUGH: Now somebody like, exclusively like, specifically like Papa Smurf, how long had he been on the streets?
LANKFORD: Papa Smurf had been on the streets for close to 20 years and as a street person. He came off and on the streets. In fact, I got him to go back with his granddaughter for a while but he said, Baby, I can’t handle that. I can’t handle living inside for more than a week or so. I love my great-grandchildren, I love my granddaughter but this isn’t for me. He ended up on the streets because his mother and his wife and his sister and brother-in-law all had died within two months of each other and it was more than he could bear. And he got into a cocaine habit and cocaine and pushing a cart and running around and picking up things and giving them to people on the streets, it became his life.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, I must say I think the common reaction to street people, homeless people, among people who are not street people or homeless is they’re a little bit afraid. They’re a little put off. They’re a little repulsed. Was that your reaction to begin with?
CAVANAUGH: And why do you think that is?
LANKFORD: It was an adventure. I had read George Orwell’s book “Down and Out in Paris and London,” years and years ago, and it was published back in 1933. I’m not that old but it’s something that I had studied. And in this book, I noticed that he could really reveal the deep personalities of people, whether it was poverty or people who were homeless, in these two incredible cities. And I ended up doing a similar thing, only with photographs as well. The book is 50% text as well as 50% photographs. And it was just my cup of tea. And it ended up being – I had fabulous relationships with these people. They gained trust in me. They looked for me. It was very rewarding to go drive downtown in my old 535i and have them look for me on the streets. And it’s a hard thing to describe. I suggest reading the book.
CAVANAUGH: And you also met a group of people called The Family in Balboa Park. Tell us a little bit about those people.
LANKFORD: The Family was a little scarier. The Family, as well as the other activities that go on in Balboa Park—and I do reveal these activities—it’s – I would classify that as something other than zany. But if I had not been physically dragged into meeting up with The Family, with my Hasselblad stripped off of my arm and them skipping along and talking, I finally figured out that this was another level of what some people would call the crazies in the park. I was able to make sense with them. I was able to have a good conversation. I was able to get waivers from them and do transcriptions of the tapes but it’s a whole different dialogue than the street people downtown, and they don’t commune with one another. There are different cults of homelessness.
CAVANAUGH: And I think probably that’s completely lost in a world of people who just look at people who don’t have a home as being all the same kind, all – basically, all the same people.
LANKFORD: Absolutely. I had a showing of the images at Fairbanks Ranch Country Club and as people were sipping wine and looking at the images, one woman came up and said, well, now why would I buy something like that? It’s so depressing. And I said, well, actually the images aren’t for sale. I’m just showing this to see what the reaction is of individuals in the north county and some of the other affluent areas of how they feel about the homeless.
CAVANAUGH: And as you say, you go into detail about some of the activities that were going on in Balboa Park in the nineties, I don’t know if they still are, where people basically were selling sex.
CAVANAUGH: And were – did you hestitate to go there? Or was it something that you felt you had to reveal?
LANKFORD: Well, it started out with – innocently with my assistant and I had gotten our salads and sandwiches from the Cheese Shop and we had gone up just to sit in the breeze, you get out of the downtown for a while. And it was blatant what was happening if you really sit there and you’re looking around rather than to go for a run or to play volleyball or take a child for a walk. You can’t avoid seeing what’s taking place. And so we started going two, three, four times a week, and we’d drive up there at lunchtime and it would be the same individuals in the same Jaguars, the same Porsches going back and forth, cruising and so I interviewed many of the male prostitutes. And there are daytime male prostitutes and there are nighttime male prostitutes, and that’s all a part of The Family activity, too.
CAVANAUGH: Your – The first book in this social justice trilogy that you’re working on was called “Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes.” People might remember that, and it was about women prison inmates. What connection did you find between prison and homelessness?
LANKFORD: Well, everybody has a mother and most of the people on the street would talk about their mothers. They missed them, there were things that they never understood about their relationships with their mothers, and that led me, since they had all gone to jail, I went on a tour with the assistant sheriff of five of the seven jails. And when I got to the women’s facility, that’s when Benny McLaughlin said I think you’ve found your home. And I conducted – for two and a half years, I conducted interviews and that facility.
CAVANAUGH: And – But I’m not clear on – everybody does have a mother but what – if your mother is in prison, are you talking about? Is that what leads to homelessness or what?
LANKFORD: No, there are just – there are pitfalls. There are things that happen in people’s lives and it can be traumas, it can be lack of education, it can be poverty, it can be loss of a loved one, any number of things that can take a person into either a form of depression and they’ll go for drugs to alleviate that feeling. Old Chuck in the park, he would go for alcohol and he’d say, you know, I never wanted for anything, as a boy, as an adult, I’ve never driven a car, I never wanted a car, but I do drink to try to feel normal. And when we placed him in a little SRO, he became very, very uncomfortable because he didn’t know what to do with possessions he had to take care of; possessions in his cart that he could give away, and sleeping outside, he could deal with. And so he would get up out of his bed and four in the morning and go back to the park.
CAVANAUGH: And that leads us to a question of why do you think that the idea – what we try to do as a society to help homeless people often seems to fail. It just doesn’t work. It just doesn’t hit the mark. What are we doing wrong?
LANKFORD: We need to assess the homeless. There are so many different cultures of homelessness. And in our business world and in our elected official world where we’re dealing with a constituency, we’re dealing with trying to please people for maybe a two-year period of time, we’re not looking at the long term. It’s much more expensive to do nothing. We’re spending millions of dollars in our county on people going back and forth to jail, back and forth to the streets, no remediation, no rehabilitation. Many of the individuals that I had talked to on the streets, even though they were zany and creative and very, very intelligent, they could’ve been helped had we had a second chance as Scott Silverman’s Second Chance acting in the jail facilities, telling them, hey, you know, dare you to say no. You’re going to do it, you’re going to do something, you’re going to do it right, and we’re going to follow you along. Now we have SB-618 in our county that we’re the only county in California who’s doing this for the prison inmates. That is very, very positive. It’s helping with the recidivism but we have to be able to keep it up. We have 9,000 individuals who are going to be pre-released, coming back to San Diego and 30 to 50% of them will be on the streets. And the book shows a certain type of homeless people. I don’t get involved with the floridly psychotic or seriously mentally ill, and we need to have County Mental Health. We’re going to have – December one, we’re having that Call to Action event. We will have Dr. Philip Hanger on the panel, we will have Steve Binder, who’s the found of the Homeless Court, we’ll have Brian Maienschein with United Way, we’ll have Scott Silverman, and Eric Judson, who’s JMI Sports, and we’re going to try to cover the bases between the political infrastructure and the providers and the business people to bring everyone together to start looking. And San Diego’s pretty sloppy when it comes to doing their politics regarding homeless. They clean up their streets but still we’re not able to deal in a humane way with the personalities. Seattle, Canada, New York City, Portland have topped us.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I – You know, I think that what you mentioned before, the idea of somebody being taken off the streets and not sort of liking it in a room because they don’t know what to do with possessions and stuff, I think that that’s the kind of thing that makes functional people, people who function well in society, pull their hair out and say, well, what are we supposed to do? What are we supposed to do? If they want to live on the streets, let them live on the streets, I’ve heard people say that. And that’s not the answer, though, is it?
LANKFORD: No, and you’re absolutely right. We do want to think that a 500 bed shelter is going to be the answer but it has to be a repository for different elements. We have to have a mental health element that we can gain the trust of individuals who really need to have some mental health drugs and need to be watched. We need to have their SSI working for them, not working for more street drugs and more alcohol. And we need to have the people who that – the young mothers who have no families, who have no place to go – Sure, we need to have the shelter beds, we need to have that done but if we do a careful assessment and we find out what the percentages are, then we won’t be fooling the taxpayer into thinking that they’re housing everybody in the latest shelter.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Susan Madden Lankford and we’re speaking about her newest books of photographs and text called “Downtown U.S.A.” It’s about San Diego. These pictures are from San Diego. I wanted to ask you, what are some of perhaps your favorite or more meaningful photographs in “Downtown U.S.A.”?
LANKFORD: Well, there are so many. We have 300 images in “Downtown U.S.A.” and I suppose I think about Mrs. Walton, and she’s toward the end of the book and beautiful, beautiful African American woman, age 80, who is on her bare lot and her house had burned down. And she would tell me about how she used to wear pretty clothes and high heels and she loved to dance and her husband – told me all about her husband. And she couldn’t leave this lot even though she owned another property just a few blocks away where her children lived, and they collected her check. So she was left without money and – but in her estimation, this is the way she was supposed to be. I took an individual from County Mental Health to go meet her to see if we could put her into an SRO and he said, I can’t do a thing. She can dress herself, she can feed herself, she can take care of herself. We – Our hands are tied. We cannot deem anyone – we can’t force them into any type of housing against their own will.
CAVANAUGH: You know, among the things you say you learned from working with homeless people that you got to know is about how things fall apart, about the fragility of the human mind. Tell us a little bit about that.
LANKFORD: I think that a lot of people, maybe they don’t want to admit it, but I think they do worry about, quote, losing their mind. There are a lot of stresses that we go through. We persevere as humans and we get our children to school and we try to do the best job, and things happen. And when they happen, we don’t really know how we’re going to deal with it. Some people who don’t have the level of education that others do or some people who don’t have the money and other resources or can’t go to mental health specialists, there’s no avenue for them.
CAVANAUGH: And having had no avenue for them, they wind up on the streets.
LANKFORD: Many of them wind up on the streets. There’s a dear man who is at the very end of our book that I just recently went and interviewed. His name is Phil and he is best friends with the pigeons in the downtown area, and the pigeons will follow him for blocks. They’ll swarm him because he goes and he gives them water and he gives them food and he sits with them and he nurtures them. He has one that’s injured that he carries with him called Daddy. And Phil said that his wife booted him out. He was in the Navy for many, many years and she booted him out in Chicago and he’s just never been quite right since.
CAVANAUGH: Do you see signs that here in San Diego we’re getting ready to address the issue of homelessness?
LANKFORD: We’re trying but we are so separate in our interests whether you have elected officials trying to do their very best or whether you have the business community not wanting to have another shelter next to their offices or whether you have County Mental Health that’s strapped in certain areas but they’re spending their funds in other areas. We have to have clarity and we need to write about this. The U-T needs to put this in the newspaper. We need to have some type of dialogue that goes on weekly so that the public can understand what’s going on. This problem is a crisis. It’s a huge crisis in San Diego and it’s costing the taxpayers millions, and we don’t realize it. I mean, when we say $11 billion a year in the State of California for the state prisons, and we’re going to let 9,000 inmates out, what’s the attrition rate going to be on the union guards? That’s where the $11 billion are, and we’re not getting informed about that. And we aren’t informed about it at the old CYA facility, which is now DJJ and those youth are $234,000 a year because they’ve reduced the number of kiddos but they haven’t had the level of attrition with the union guards.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I have to end it there but I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today, Susan. Thank you.
LANKFORD: Thank you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And happy Thanksgiving.
LANKFORD: Same to you.
MYRLAND: Photojournalist Susan Madden Lankford is the author of “Downtown U.S.A.: A Personal Journey with the Homeless.” The Call to Action event about the homeless will be held December 1st, 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. at 655 West Broadway in downtown San Diego. I’m Doug Myrland. These Days in San Diego, in the next hour: Film Club of the Air.