Six months ago today, at 11:30 in the morning (U.S. Central Time) I was laying on the hood of my car in a parking lot on the intersection of Warren and Riverfront in Mankato, MN. Minutes before, I had turned in the keys to my apartment at the RentMSU office. I had nowhere to go, and finally realized just what I had decided to do.
So, what brought me to the decision to leave the comforts of job security, a warm bed, a bathroom, a lot of movies, and a kitchen to travel the western states writing about homelessness? This is a great question and one I’ll do my best to answer. There are only a few people who were incredibly close to me from the beginning to completely understand as soon as they heard what I was doing.
In the summer of 2007 I came to the realization that I couldn’t afford to continue on in school in the fall semester. To be honest, it didn’t hurt my feelings as much as I had thought it would. I was attending South Central College and in the middle of a Marketing Degree. It wasn’t something I had ever seen myself doing as a career, but I knew from my past that I was good at it and I found myself 22 years old and not anywhere near further education. This college failure caused me to take a closer look at my life and think about what I wanted in life and in a career. When I was 16 I had started documenting nearly everything in my life, through writing, video, and photography. It was something that made me calm and happy in a time of my life that, for very personal reasons, was neither.
And so, that summer, I picked up a pen and a camera for the first time in a long time. I knew I was meant for more than selling things to a continually greedier Human Race, and at this time I started to realize just what that was.
I wanted to write about and I wanted to photograph everything I saw. I wanted to show the beauty of this earth that is so often overlooked. I wanted to try to give hope to a hopeless world.
Over the next few years I focused so much more time on photography. I had two art exhibits in Mankato, both of which were held at Bliss Java. I did portraits, weddings, and about anything I could do to make a little extra money here and there while developing a portfolio. But while I watched digital cameras become more user friendly and people less willing to hire someone to photograph their wedding, because of the friend they have who has a nice camera and can do a good enough job for cheap to free. I knew that I had to do something else to make a career of something I could truly enjoy.
I’ve always wanted photography to become at least part of my profession, so I thought about the different ways to use photography in a career. That’s when I came to the thought of Photojournalism. This process took an embarrassingly long time. When I excitedly told my friends and family that I finally figured out what I was going to do with myself, most of them said something along the lines of, “I thought that was your plan all along”.
During this time, I was trying to decide if I should move to Phoenix to live near my brother. I had decided to go ahead and make the move in the summer of 2009 and just a few short months before the moving day my weakness struck. I met a girl and had decided that we should totally be dating. So while we were spending more and more time together, I was fretting telling her that I was moving, and then thinking about how much I really wanted to move. So I came up with a plan. I would put off moving for two months. In that time, I would stay at friends’ houses and at my parents’ house to both save money for the move, and see if a real relationship would ever sprout between us. I had talked to a few of my friends about this, and they all said that I’ve always got a couch to crash on. And so the plan was ready. There was only one person left to explain it all to and that was the girl.
When I told her what I was going to do she said something like, “That’s the dumbest thing ever. If you’re going to move, then move, and if you’re going to stay here, stay”. And so, stay I did. Within the next three weeks it had become completely clear that nothing would happen between us, and there I was with a year lease. Through out the next year I continually thought about the homeless. I wondered what their daily life was like; what services were available to help them survive; what they did to get back into self-sufficiency. Along with these thoughts, I watched as the American economy collapsed. I watched news accounts of families losing their unemployment, and not knowing how they would survive.
These are the reasons I decided to quit my job, leave my home, put my life on hold, and do my best to tell as many people as will truly listen what the people we usually try to ignore go through from day to day. I know that because I put myself in this situation and because of the short amount of time I spend in each place my account isn’t perfect, but I also know that it’s far more than most people do. I know that the light I shed on the forgotten is helping more people think about homelessness than would have otherwise.
I moved out my apartment on July 25th, 2010 and spent the next six weeks living in Mankato, MN much like I had for the past four years. I saved as much money as I could to pay for my travel expenses along the way. During this time, I got used to a different lifestyle. I slept between my car, different friends’ houses, and my parents’ house. It was a month of preparation mostly. I prepared my old battle scarred car for a trip, that no one expected it could possibly survive. What did I think? This car had never let me down. It had brought me on trips to New Mexico, all around Iowa, back and forth to South Dakota, and all around Minnesota. This car had taken on a semi truck, and still lived to tell the tale. This car was and is the best car that has ever lived. I compare it to Frodo Baggins in my head a lot. Suffice it to say, that no one expected it to survive a task that would surely take its life, but it has proven itself time and time again.
On August 31st 2010 at 11:00 at night I walked out of the Mankato Grandstay where I had worked for years unemployed. It was nearly as nerve racking a moment as the day just over a month earlier when I moved out of my apartment. And on September 11th 2010 I drove west on Highway 60 towards the great unknown.
On The Road
I learned a lot on Rapid City. The day after arriving there I met a man named Russ who talked to me because, “[I] was kind enough to say hi and ask him how he was.” He was obviously homeless and as he said, was used to being looked down on and ignored. Russ told me the sort of things I should expect along the way. Many of those things have helped me greatly in the past months. When he found out what I was doing, he, like most people in his situation, got really excited. He and his friends said that homeless people are pushed to the shadows and more people should bring those things to light. I was only in Rapid City for a short time, but it was a most excellent educational experience.
Since then I’ve been to Salt Lake City, UT, Seattle, WA, Olympia, WA, Portland, OR, San Francisco, CA, Monterey, CA and Santa Barbara, CA. In that time I’ve met a lot of interesting people. I’ve found that the homeless for the most part are a close net community and although they are often portrayed as dirty, selfish, lazy, substance addicted, insane people in reality most of the people I’ve come in contact with are very helpful to anyone who is in need, they don’t like their situation, and until they are able to get into a place of their own, they want a little dignity.
I’ve loved this experience more than most things I’ve done before in my life. It has in so many ways cemented my decision to go back to school to study journalism. It has also been one of the hardest, most tiring, and honestly, least fun thing I’ve ever done. That’s right I both love what I’m doing and hate it at the same time. You see, I love it. I love focusing my entire life on experiencing something I otherwise wouldn’t and writing all about it. I don’t in anyway like not living anywhere. I don’t enjoy sleeping in a car, a shelter, under a bush, or where ever else I’ve slept. I don’t like accepting help from people. It makes me feel bad. But I set out to experience the lowest of the low so that I can shed at least some light on what many peoples reality is. Homelessness is something that’s impossible to understand or even empathize with without experience.
With the thought of what I’ve accomplished, I find myself, once again, in a preparation stage. I’m preparing to start my life again. This is in no way, the end of my traveling. I’m in Santa Barbara, CA and still have about two months ahead of me, but I’ve been doing this for a long time, and everything must end. I find myself with less and less to write about.
I still have three or four cities ahead of me. I’ll be approaching them slightly differently and spending less time in each one.
Please continue to read the things I’ll be writing, and for those of you who are just now happening upon this blog. There’s a lot already written. Go back and see what I’ve learned and shared with the world.
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