Frank A. Mills


"Packing Up"

Living in the Shadow of Society

Posted: May 15, 2020

Millions of humans live in the shadow of society. They live in our midst, but remain invisible to most, by our choice, not theirs. If we do happen to see them, they are repugnant to us.

They're people who we've made marginal in our ignoring and berating. These are people, yes, who march to a different drum than the societal norm. Sometimes society has provided no choice. Yet, they are people who are, but for a different set of circumstances. just like you and I. People, who like you and I are God’s children.

In the photos some look at the camera with a twinkle in their eyes, while others look at the camera with hollow, vacant eyes, just seeking to exist. The first group makes us ask ourselves, if their alternative lifestyle doesn't bother them, why then does it bothers us so much? Perhaps, it is because they in the way they live point out the futility of our aspirations? The latter group in their vacant stare make us ask, “Why? What happen to them?” And, perhaps, we find the answer in our own “I want” driven complacency and agendas. I think both groups upset us.

Therefore, we hide behind our self-created repugnance toward the homeless.

In this photo-piece, I seek to bring some of these folk out of the shadows into the daylight.

"At Home"

All so often we make homelessness about not having a home. But, the homeless do have a home! It may not fit our definition of home, maybe because it is not normally a house? But look at how they have set up home— in tents under bridges, in wooded areas and parks, even in cars and vacant buildings.

Perhaps the first of solving the "homeless problem" is come up with a better description of who these people are? Perhaps in focusing on getting the "homeless" off the street we excuse ourselves from doing the real work--- Work like changing a structure that puts these folks on the street in the first place.

In the above photo, although the setting is different, she is no different than you or I. Not obvious in the photo, is the cup of coffee she has sitting by her. She's reading the paper while sipping coffee, just like you or I may do.

"Red Matt"

I ran into "Just call me, 'Red Matt'" when I was wondering around South Austin looking for photo opportunities. He had just finished taking a shower in the bathhouse of one of Austin's public pools. Red Matt told me that a few years ago he had lost his job and was now traveling around the country in his car, doing odd jobs here and there for money to live on. Presently, he was on his way to "somewhere west." "I am not homeless, my car is my home." In some ways Red Matt reminded me of the vagrants of my childhood who would knock on the door and offer to do whatever we might need for a bit of money or some food. They were always on their way somewhere.

I wonder with the tremendous job loss caused by our government's mismanagement of COVID-19 how many more Red Matt's will be on their way to somewhere from what became no where place?

"The Squat"

This image is about home. What is home? A car like Red Matt's or a simple place to sit and take a crap? "Homes" change, not always what we would consider for the good, but for many it is a home, a step above the streets.

I was taking pictures of a semi-abandoned building that had become a squat for the homeless, when one of those who lived there asked why I was taking pictures. Are you from the city?" I told him, "No." His response was, "Come with me." Entering a small room, "This is our bathroom. It's all we have. We try to keep it clean (note the plastic baggies)." He went on, "Every place chases us out when we try to use their restroom."

Following up on that, I asked around at a few of the nearby public places, like a coffee shop, a restaurant, and a grocery store. They all said, "No," to my question, the folk are not allowed to use their restrooms. One went as far as to say he calls the police when a such a person tries to use his store's restroom. He told me that with scrunched-up face, scowl lining his forehead.

A short time later I ran into the owner of building. His comment,"I know they're there, and it is pretty disgusting. But what are they going to do? And they do try to keep it clean, or as clean as they can given what they have [to work with]"

Now, I know there are two legitimate sides to this story. It is easy – quite understandable – to see the dilemma that store owners have. Nevertheless, I hope you can also see the dilemma facing those homeless who have no restroom to use. In fairness, I will say that some store owners do indeed allow the homeless to use their restroom. But apparently, not enough. Which raises the question, what is the city – any city – doing to meet the restroom needs of the homeless. Some cities are trying. I have lately noticed porta-potties at some encampments. Some are doing nothing.

We must not forget, to do nothing creates a health risk, not only for these folk, but also for the entire city. I will be the first to admit that I don't have a perfect answer to the problem, but a solution does need to be found, even if only for a selfish reason: our health.

"An Industrial Squat"

These guys were living in a semi-abandoned warehouse complex in what was a make shift work-live arrangement. Each was an artist or craftsman and the arrangement suited them. The owner, they claimed was okay with them being there. If I remember correctly, one of them said they pay minimal rent.

It seemed however that the city was not happy with them living there. It was claimed that it was "not a safe environment." Maybe it wasn't, but they didn't care. It was home. Not long after this photo was taken they were served an eviction notice.

It so happened that I returned a few days later and took a few more photos of the complex. This was the day that the Housing Inspector wrote them up. I did not know it then. Later that day, my path crossed with the inspector. He had seen me at the complex and was curious why I was taking photos. After we talked a bit, he mentioned how sorry he was to have to write the guys up. "They are just minding their own business. Hurting no one." The truth was that a big developer had his eyes on the site as the perfect site for upscale condos or apartments, and the city was all for it. Part of their regentrification plan, although the city certainly didn't call it that. Nevertheless, neighborhood rent was skyrocketing. Far beyond what these guys or most of the old neighborhood residents could afford.

Four more folks who found their home (at least for a while) on the street.

A side note here: Not only did the higher rents increase homelessness, many people who owned homes were forced out by rapidly rising property taxes

Let's take a break from tales of woe and spend a few hours behind a strip of closed store on a sunny, spring Sunday afternoon.

Where I am walking is home to several shady oak groves, some of which served, days long ago, as Methodist camp meeting sites. Many of the surrounding neighborhoods have Methodist Churches that came out of these camp meetings. Thinking to get out of the sun for a bit, I entered a grove behind the stores.

I was not the first this afternoon to have the same idea. Three others had already discovered it, and had settled in to drink beer, smoke, and enjoy a bit of guitar playing in the shade. Not one of the three, nor the fourth person who arrived after me knew the other, yet they were like family. I too was included. I was offered a beer, which I gladly accepted, and a puff of weed, which I declined. There was n ot one of the four that I could not have as a friend if they were so inclined.

These were not "homeless folk" in the accepted sense of the word, but they were hobos, if you will, on a journey— A journey wrapped in adventure.

"Kellie Lee"

Meet Kellie Lee. "That's 'Kellie Lee' as in one name," I was told as we introduced ourselves. "That's Jimbo and Mr. B over there with the guitars."

"Kellie Lee's Hands"

Kellie Lee was a jewelry maker from Seattle on her way to Costa Rica in an old Dodge van. She hoped to meet up with a friend once there. The ring on her left hand is one of her creations. Kellie Lee told me that she had spent the morning hoping to sell her jewelry to folks who were in Austin for the spring Pecan Street Festival. Those who paid for their booths were not appreciative of her efforts and she was soon told to stop. So she headed off looking for a place to crash for a few hours. She planned to be back on the road early Monday morning. She thought she had enough gas to make to San Antonio.

Jimbo didn't like the idea of having his picture taken. He did finally relent, but it had to be while he strummed the guitar. He moved so much it came out blurry. Mr B. on the other hand was much more cooperative:

"Mr. B"

Mr B. was an itinerant musician whose home was "sort of in Austin." He told me that he wandered around the country playing in bars and saloons for a place too sleep and some food. And tips, he hoped. He always made it a point, he said, to be in Colorado for ski season. He said that he had "a long time ago" cut a record." I never did find out much about Jimbo, other than he too was an itinerant musician, who like Mr. B, called Austin "home," but was rarely in town.

Which brings us to James, the last arrival.


All of a sudden James was there, standing next to Kellie Lee. I think she noticed him the same time the rest of us did. Before a word was spoken, I think someone offered James a beer. He in turned offered every one cigarette paper and roll-your-own tobacco. He declined the weed with "No thank you. Don't do drugs."

Now let me ask you, do any of these four look like what we stereotype as "homeless"? But by our common definition of "homeless," they are.

I'd like you to meet a few more people—


Nathan and I shared a table at a bakery. He had the only available table and invited me to join him. The bakery, he told me, always gave him coffee and a pastry. As we talked I learned Nathan is about 90% blind and has been so since birth. He can see dark, fuzzy movements, he said.

Technically Nathan is not homeless. He has an apartment. The only thing is, that when this photo was taken he less than seven hours to come up with the remainder of his rent: $200. His state disability check had apparently became lost in the mail. And while a new check was being cut and mailed his landlord demanded the rent by 5:00 pm, or Nathan would be out on the streets. Not once in our conversation did Nathansk me for money. He did ask for a ride to a church that he believed would help out. The church would give him a ride home he thought. I gave him the ride and the few dollars I had. At least that way he'd have money for the bus if the church didn't come through. I did offer to wait, but he did not want me to. I hope the church came through for him. I looked for him several times at the bakery, but our paths never crossed again. My loss.

"The Terminator"

(Pointing) "What kind of church is that over there?"
"A Baptist one," I replied.

"Praise the Lord! I am a Baptist.
"Do you know who I am?"
"No, I don't," I answered.

"I am The Terminator," he said arm across his chest, fists pounding.
"Do you know what The Terminator does?"
"No, tell me," I said.

"The Terminator terminates
What is that church over there?" He points in a different direction.

"It is an AME Church," I state.
"Praise the Lord! I am AME. (hesitates) What's AME?"
"African Methodist Episcopal," I answer.
"Praise the Lord! I am an African Methodist."

With that The Exterminator heads off to the Baptist Church to see if they are serving lunch yet.

"Phoning Home"

Providing a "homeless" person with a cell phone allows the person to keep in touch with his family, provide for job interviews, and summon emergency help. Simply put, they are LifeLines for the "homeless." These phones, provided by the government are codified to assist people without a permanent residence. For more info: Invisible People (This will take you to an external URL.)

"Day Laborers"

There are many, many more stories that I could share. Hopefully, these few will put a human face on those we call "homeless." The last two live in the trailer (when it is not being used as an office) or cars in the lot behind them. It is basically, wherever they can find to sleep. Only one agreed to having his picture taken. The other held his arms over his face so I could take the picture. There originally were three men looking for day labor. The third walked off when I asked if I could take their photo. I suspect that at least one of them is undocumented.)

What impresses me most is the smile on the face of the one who allowed me to take his picture. The smiles reminds me that these folk are people just like you and I. People with the same emotions, the same desires, with (or once with) similar aspirations. Somehow though, we who have so much forget this as we turn our head and pretend they're invisible.

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