If these photographs have one mission, it is this: to expose the viewer to the reality of 200 youths who do not know where they will sleep each night in Grand Rapids. From stairwells to public parks, homeless youth are hidden in plain sight. Unlike homeless adults, homeless youth are put in an even more vulnerable space living on the streets. They lack access to homeless shelters that serve adults, are preyed on by pimps, and are taken advantage of when finding places to sleep. I spent this semester learning with friends who were formerly homeless in their youth and program directors at shelters and resource centers in Grand Rapids.
This body of work captures both impersonal landscapes of where homeless youth occupy city spaces and more intimate portraits of the realities of homeless life. Youth experiencing homelessness are transient, hard to get a hold of, and untrusting of strangers. This made this project particularly challenging. This body of work is my child, my baby and it’s hard to let go of her. In many ways it feels inadequate in capturing everything I have learned, so experience this knowing it wears blinders. This is a lens into another world. I invite you to see this city differently with me.
Teens who become homeless are for a myriad of reasons. Thom Mcguire was homeless as a teen in Florida because of an ultimatum his mom gave him. Amy Bowditch was homeless periodically in her youth in Wyoming because leaving home was safer than staying with her father, a substance abuser. Alex Bullock was homeless in Grand Rapids as a teen to escape an abusive home, finding shelter under over passes, with friends’ families, and abandon buildings.
Grand Rapids has a limited number of resources for homeless youth. Arbor Circle operates multiple programs for homeless and runaway youth. They operate the Bridge, a shelter for teens ages 12-17, and more programs focused on homeless youth. Bridge Street House of Prayer indirectly serves the homeless youth population by having a free and safe place to hang out during the day. HQ is a new center focused on resources, rest, and readiness. HQ will not be used as a shelter, but they will connect youth with the resources they need to find permanent housing.
In conversations with Andy Soper, HQ founder, and Ben Kaiser, Arbor Circle, I learned that youth are exploited because of their circumstance. Many will trade sex for housing or food stamps for a couch to sleep on. In some homeless camps, occupants sell drugs provided by the camp leader to solidify their place at night. Youth who are fortunate to have tents share with others. Kaiser informed me that the summer hotspot for homeless youth is Rosa Parks Circle, our city center. It is also a hang out for local skaters and the two groups of youth mingle. Kaiser knows of skaters who have provided tents for their homeless friends. In the winter months many youths go back home to toxic, abusive relationships they runaway from for warmth.
“We must accurately perceive the root causes of youth homelessness and not solely attack the symptoms or coping mechanisms of victimized youth. Importantly, we must view youth homelessness as a social problem, not an individual problem presented to a number of troubled youth.” -Chicago Coalition for the Homeless