Homelessness Photo Essay
It’s five o’clock in the morning, and a cold mist lies upon the small Kenyan town of Kitale. Only if you walk around the empty town at the break of dawn will you notice the part of life that society is hiding. On cold, concrete floors, all over the city, lie hundreds of children fast asleep.
Their skinny bodies are covered in plastic bags or blankets as they sleep right next to each other to escape the cold and rigid nights. As the first rays of light are sipping through the trees the town is slowly awakening. Some children are running into the damp and misty fog while a young boy brings out an old t-shirt and starts cleaning up the children’s urine and dirt from the concrete floors.
There is a silent agreement with the city dwellers, that the street children are allowed to sleep on the cold floors of the town, as long as every trace of them ever being there is erased in the morning. Nobody wants to know where the homeless children sleep at night.
They are forgotten by people. Ignored in social debates. Through police raids they are forced to their deaths. The homeless children are a common sight in the modern Kenyan society. During the 20 years I have been travelling between Kenya and Finland the number of street children has increased rapidly. Today, I find them in the smallest of cities, including the village I grew up in myself.
My name is Sofia Jern. I am a Finnish photography student at UAS Novia in Finland. In April 2016, I had the honor of accepting a Sony World Photo Award when winning the Student Focus competition with my photo series “Glue Boys”. The past year I have repeatedly returned to Kenya, my second home. I have spent my days and nights documenting the lives of the street children in town of Kitale.
I felt like flipping a coin when deciding to pursue a career in photography. It is safe to say that it was a passion of mine, but that is not why I chose it. Photography is my way to communicate inequalities, or in this case, give the street children of Kitale a voice.
In Kenya, there are 250,000 to 300,000 children living and working on the streets. The use of psychoactive substances, or in this case glue fumes, among street children for survival has been a prevalent problem in most urban centers in Kenya. This is also why they are called the Glue Boys.
Street children is a global phenomenon. In Colombia they are called ‘mariginais’ (criminal), in Rio de Janeiro, ‘polillas’ (moths) in Bolivia, ‘bui doi’ (dust children) in Vietnam, ‘saligoman’ (nasty kids) in Rwanda, ‘moustiques’ (mosquitos) in Cameroon and ‘chokora’ (garbage picker) in Kenya. I know them by the name ‘glue boys’.
Most street children reflect an image of misery, suffering and neglect. They are viewed by society as being dirty, dangerous, unhealthy thieves and so are consequently treated with apathy and disgust. The social stigmatization directed at street children is based on their appearance.
But the children I met go under the name Shidriki, Kevin, Brian and Shadrak, and I can not ask this question enough: who will take care of you?
About the author: Sofia Jern is a photographer based in Finland. Having grown up in Kenya, she became aware and interested from an early age in the issues of social inequality and human rights. You can find more of her work on her website.
Images of the homeless shed light on this pernicious problem. Photographers from PhotoSensitive's very first project were tasked with going into homeless shelters and food banks and onto the streets to photograph homeless families, single mothers, teens and children. Photos captured people living in desperation mixed with hope, however faint. The exhibit was called In Their Eyes.
The story behind the images
Homelessness is a problem everywhere in the Western world, in spite of the perceived affluence and progress of our culture. In the last three decades the problem has increased across North America due to a growing shortage of affordable housing coupled with an increase in poverty. Homelessness and poverty are an embarrassment in our modern era. We might hope to have eliminated these problems by this point in our culture but these issues have worsened or at least perpetuated.
Nowhere is that more true than in Toronto, as anyone who has been to the city knows. The very first PhotoSensitive project focused on the issue of the homeless in Toronto. The exhibit In Their Eyes, from 1992 stands then as a historical document. The photo exhibit was PhotoSensitive's very first project, a moving photo essay providing a stark black and white window into the lives of the hungry and homeless of the city. The project's beneficiary and prominent subject was the Daily Bread Food Bank, run at that time by Gerard Kennedy (later an MP and Liberal leadership hopeful).
The exhibit today looks back on a problem that in many respects has grown worse since that time. In 1998, it was reported that admissions to homeless shelters in Toronto had increased by 75% over the previous decade.
Homelessness in Canada: statistics and changes
Homeless statistics are skewed by factors such as time of year. That is, many more people report to homeless shelters during the winter months than in April or May, for example. (A lack of reliable statistics is, in fact, a specifically Canadian problem.) In any case, it is certain that the problem has not gone away since our photo exhibit of 1992, and homelessness remains a blight on all of Canada's major cities.
PhotoSensitive's documentary photographs of homeless people drew attention to the plight of the vulnerable and disadvantaged in this city and elsewhere throughout North America but it also captured their strength, their determination and their desire for dignity. The hope of the exhibit of images was to raise awareness and if one less child went hungry because of the exhibit, it was very much worth it.
In the time since, Toronto has worked toward dealing with its homeless problem. Social housing and other programs have helped alleviate the issue somewhat, and statistics show other positive signs. For example, the peak reporting year for homeless shelters in Toronto was 2001, with over 31,000 people reporting to shelters in Toronto; in 2010, the number was 22,276. Similarly, estimates of people living on the streets in Toronto from 2006 to 2009 were also down. Dealing with the homeless problem remains a priority of many. In 2010, the city of Toronto opened its Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre (SHARC), unique to the city. This site offers rest, shelter and time to talk with onsite workers.
Homeless youth, homeless children
Children under the age of 18 account for approximately 40% of the homeless, with 5% of the urban homeless population being unaccompanied minors, according to figures from the US. Families with children comprised 23% of the homeless population, one of the fastest growing segments of the homeless population.
The exhibit captured images of homeless youth and helped alleviate some of the stigma these kids and teens face.
Many of the photos were taken at the Food Bank where young families, single mothers and others living below the poverty line come to find food, at least for a day. Photographer Dick Loek describes the photo below: "I saw this young mother holding her very young baby. I spent some time with her talking, listening really. She didn't have any money or food but the love for her child was so obvious. That's what got my heart."
More faces of the homeless
Poverty has many different faces as seen in the many different images from In Their Eyes.