Those who walk around Yakima are likely to run into someone experiencing homelessness.
Some may keep walking, eyes forward, not engaging. Others may stop and offer money or food. A few may take the time to try to understand who the person is and how the person came to be homeless.
The city’s ongoing homelessness problem is one that is pervasive but uncomfortable for many people to talk or even think about, said Yakima Neighborhood Health Services communications director Leah Ward.
“This is a conservative, insular community, but Yakima is fooling itself when it thinks it doesn’t have big-city problems,” Ward said.
In August, Neighborhood Health will offer community members a look into the harsh realities faced by many of those experiencing homelessness.
“Where We Slept Last Night,” an exhibit of photographs taken by formerly homeless individuals, including four of Yakima’s own, will premiere on Aug. 7 at the Rhonda D. Hauff Resource Center in Yakima.
The photographs were exhibited last month at the 2019 National Health Care for the Homeless Conference & Policy Symposium in Washington, D.C.
Sage Morningstar, whose photos will be included in the exhibit, works as a systems operator at Rainier Plastics in Yakima. Morningstar became involved with the Bright Futures program through Neighborhood Health. He said life is looking up for him.
He has a steady job, an apartment and treatment for the bipolar disorder he did not even know he had, until he connected with services in Yakima. He recently celebrated his one-year anniversary of sobriety.
But Morningstar remembers what it was like to be homeless and huddling in debris-strewn doorways near a heavily trafficked street — desperate for shelter, for safety, for a different life.
Documenting his experience and raising awareness about homelessness are two of the reasons that Morningstar feels the photography exhibit is so important.
“I kept pushing forward, I started healing, and I finally got up on my feet,” he said. “It’s very important for people to realize that when you are homeless, you do whatever you can, just to survive. But people can get back on their feet.”
The idea to give homeless individuals cameras to document their experiences started with the PhotoVoice Learning Collaborative, an initiative by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.
The Council’s website notes that individuals experiencing homelessness often have substance abuse or other disorders that contribute to their homelessness and that health care centers are in a position to help.
Health care centers in six states — Washington, Ohio, Idaho, California, Massachusetts and Virginia — recruited individuals to participate in the three-year project, asking them to answer the question “What do you want people to know about your experience?” through their photos. Participants had complete control over their content, captions, and how they chose to be identified.
Yakima Neighorhood Health Services, established in 1975, provides comprehensive medical, dental, and public health services to disadvantaged individuals.
Ward, who helped recruit PhotoVoice participants in Yakima, hopes the exhibit will help demystify homelessness and said the four Yakima photographers readily jumped on board. She met with them over pizza, asked them to document what they wanted about their existence, and that was all it took.
“They all felt a desire to advocate on behalf of other people,” Ward said. “They’re very intelligent, they know how to write, they have skills, and they have a passion about communicating the plight of people who, for whatever reason, have no home.”
Morningstar has two photographs in the exhibit.
“Icicles in the cathedral” shows a walkway meandering up to snow-covered shrubs and the icicle-hung eaves of a brick building with arched, stained-glass windows. Morningstar, who was in housing at the time he took the photo, said the spot would have called to him if he were still homeless.
“It’s almost like a little home, with a walkway beaten into the snow and the beacon of hope created by the stained glass and the icicles — kind of a doorway,” he wrote. “To me this says, ‘The door is open.’”
Hope, treatment, housing, and finding faith helped Morningstar in his recovery. The peaceful image in the “Cathedral” photograph contrasts sharply with Morningstar’s other photographs.
“Announcing our desperation” has two images side by side: a wideshot of West Walnut Street in winter followed by a close-up of a narrow, graffiti-scarred doorway trimmed in bright blue and littered with trash and snow. Morningstar said he used to sleep in the doorway when he was struggling with drug addiction.
“I wanted to photograph them together because there’s a lot of traffic on this street,” he wrote. “Our desperation needs to be announced to as many people as possible.”
Morningstar classified the space as “relatively safe.” Safety was also a concern for Pattrick Chapman and Amanda Robertson, two other individuals whose photos will be included in the exhibit. The Yakima Herald-Republic first reported on the couple, who met and fell in love at a tent city in Yakima, in February.
One of Chapman’s photographs, “It’s dangerous out there,” shows three white crosses, covered with flowers and a crucifix, attached to a chain link fence in an alley where Chapman said someone was murdered and where many homeless slept.
Another of Chapman’s photos, titled “Strategic Safety,” shows a slab of concrete and bleak, industrial-looking white walls — a space he said was used by the police department for storage. Chapman said he always tried to choose sleeping spots within a mile of the police station because Robertson was pregnant.
“I didn’t want her getting jumped by street gangsters,” Chapman wrote in the caption to the image.
Chapman currently does maintenance work and Robertson recently gave birth to their first child together — a healthy baby boy, Ward said.
The other photos in the exhibit from Yakima photographers include a photo of a tree in a park where Robertson used to sleep frequently and a photo of a dumpster tagged with gang graffiti and the words “I can’t even afford ramen.”
Photos submitted from participants in other cities mirror the safety concerns and desperation experienced by many of those experiencing homelessness in Yakima.
A photograph from a participant identified as Lucinda, from Richmond, Va., showed an overflowing trash can in a place the caption called “dirty, nasty” — a place with no heat in winter.
“I’m not one to give up,” Lucinda wrote in the caption. “But how do you keep fighting something that you want to get better but it won’t?”
In a caption to an image of a towering cathedral, Theresa, from Boston, writes, “We’re not bad people or sick people, we just need a place to feel at ease.”
The Council’s website notes that health care centers offering services to people experiencing homelessness have tremendous potential to directly affect and influence underlying societal inequities that can lead individuals to become homeless.
Some of the photographs in the exhibit speak to that hope — that individuals, given proper treatment and services, can reclaim their humanity and turn their lives around for the better, as exemplified in the photo “The Rose” by Tiffany from Cleveland, Ohio.
“Sometimes I feel like this lone rose — beautiful, healthy and strong despite being surrounded by the dead leaves and weeds,” she wrote. “I’ll never let being homeless be the death of me, but an obstacle I can overcome and show my strength.”
Ward noted that the experiences of the photographers from Yakima — three of whom are currently employed and all of whom have complied with landlord-tenant agreements for their housing — prove there can be lives of quality after homelessness.
Echoing that sentiment, Morningstar said he feels blessed to be where he is in life.
“It was just too sad and depressing,” he said of his former homeless life. “I praise God that I had a year to figure this all out. I put one foot in front of the other. I wanted to be someone others could look up to. And now I’m blessed.
“I’m happy now,” he added. “There’s definitely something to live for, even after all I’ve been through.”