USA: The Real Face of Homelessness
by Karim Shamsi-Basha (photography)
Our aim was to produce a book that would literally change the face of homelessness,’ says Major Mark Brown, Area Commander for The Salvation Army in Birmingham, Alabama, USA. The book he is referring to is Shelter from the Storm, which features photographs and stories of around 30 homeless people who were helped by The Salvation Army in Birmingham.
The inspiration for the book came through the words of Isaiah 25:4: ‘You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in his distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat’ (New International Version).
The Salvation Army will benefit from any sales of the book but Major Brown hopes it will have an impact on more than local finances.
‘Many people have a preconceived idea of who and what “the homeless” are,’ he continues. ‘We wanted to give “the homeless” a name and a face. I hope that, through the talented eyes of photographer Karim Shamshi-Basha, we have achieved our goal.
‘The homeless look just like you and me. They have dreams of what their lives will be like. Dreams of what they want to accomplish. What they don’t have is a place to call home.
‘In my 25 years as a SalvationArmy officer I have never met anyone who made a conscious, clear-minded decision to become homeless. What I do meet on a daily basis are desperate families, men, women and children who have experienced circumstances and events in their lives which result in them turning to TheSalvation Army.
‘These people want to help themselves. They want to have jobs and homes. They want to participate in their community.
‘Here in Birmingham, every night around 400 people sleep in our six residential programmes, and hundreds are helped every day with counselling, food, rent and utilities assistance.’
Photographer Karim Shamsi-Basha found the experience deeply moving.
He recalls, ‘As we set up the seamless white backdrop and studio lights, they – “the homeless” – lined up outside, waiting for their turn. They all stood on the small piece of black tape and asked me for instructions. They were all respectful, dignified and proud.
‘Some of the faces showed the tough times they have been through. Some looked just like you and me. Some were funny and some were very articulate. Most everything about them was normal until you looked into their eyes.
‘Their eyes told a million stories.
‘Stories most of us would choose not to listen to. Stories most of us would choose to ignore. Stories that would scare some of us.
‘And then the little girl came in with her grandmother. She was told to stand on the spot. She played and laughed. Then she took her grandmother’s hand, looked in the camera and, with her eyes, said, “Help.”
‘At age three, her eyes told a million stories.
‘I cried that night in bed, torn between feelings of being thankful for what I have and feelings of being responsible for that little girl. Feelings of what I could have done. Feelings of helplessness.’
Mark Brown writes: ‘If these photographs and stories touched your heart I encourage you to pray for these people and the homeless like them in our care.
I also ask you to keep The Salvation Army in your prayers.
‘Thank you for caring.’
I was staying with my daughter but I can’t stay there any more. I have problems with my leg and I can’t get around very well. They help you here. They help you do what you need to do. They take me to the doctor and he gives me medicine.
If you need help, and you really want to be helped, come to The Salvation Army.
I’ve travelled a lot. I’ve been doing construction work. I was so down when I reached Birmingham.
I didn’t have a place to stay and, well, I came to The Salvation Army.
They’ve taught me to think positive and continue to try. Work hard and, when you get an opportunity, take advantage of it.
They offered me some classes and now I am learning a new trade. I got a certificate in food preparation. Now I am certified to be a restaurant manager.
Each time I do something good, another door opens up for me. A lot of good things are happening for me now – my dreams are coming true.
I believe in The Salvation Army. I have two sons, five and six. Some other shelters don’t let moms and their kids stay together. Here they let me have my babies with me.
They are teaching me how to survive out on my own. They are teaching me that I don’t have to be homeless. They give us more than enough.
The people here are like my family now. They are all I have.
I am going to survive. I am going to make it.
My mom brought us down here to help my uncle. He was messed up in all kinds of trouble.
Now we are living in a shelter.
It is hard enough being a teenager but now we have no place to live. I am glad that we aren’t on the streets, but how did we get here?
I just started school and The SalvationArmy gave me some clothes. That was nice, but I wish we could go home. I want to see my friends and sleep in my own bed.
Right now, we are in the hands of God and The Salvation Army.
I am a grandmother raising my grandchild until my son is able to come home. Don’t take my photo, just hers.
Whenever she sees a phone she picks it up and thinks that her daddy is going to be there.
I am homeless. I need help and so does she. I’m not homeless because I want to be.
I never thought that I would go to The Salvation Army for help, but I did and a lot of good things have happened.
I am so tired. I’ve spent my life doing things my way. I lived from day to day. I used to take things into my own hands.
Now, I want to step out in faith.
I’m taking some classes through The Salvation Army and I hope to be working in a kitchen somewhere soon. Staying here affords me a place to stay while I study and get my life together.
I am homeless, yeah, I am.
It is only by the grace of God that I am here – God’s grace and mercy.
People treat me with respect here. They have taught me that everybody is worth something.
I’m worth something.
We’ve both been on drugs and we are trying to get our life together. I feel like God has brought us here for a reason.
It’s hard and we’ve been through a lot, but my husband and me are here and we are together. My mom just passed and we need to get strong with the family.
Me and my husband want to help raise our granddaughter. I can’t help her if I’m on drugs. We are going to get clean and live our lives right.
I am a child of God. There is always hope. Never give up.
I left my husband behind. He was abusive and I needed to get my daughter out of there. My daughter is mentally retarded.
I had nowhere to go. I found these doors and they took me in. We got a fresh new start.
Now I got hope.
Working through their programme, I have gotten to the right doctors and to the right schools. They are helping us to get medicine and housing. I am very grateful to The Salvation Army.
There is hope. There is a God.
I came here totally despondent, totally confused and totally lost.
After seven months I have regained my health, I have become clean and sober and have refound Christ.
I now have focus. I understand that every day isn’t going to be perfect, but that’s OK. I don’t have to resort to personal destruction to get me through the day.
That’s one of the main things that being here has taught me.
Don’t look for daily rewards from your fellow man. Your reward is doing good and doing right.
Shelter from the Storm is a 68-page hardback book featuring photographs of people in the Salvation Army homeless shelter in Birmingham, Alabama, USA. The book also contains their personal stories, Scripture and inspirational quotations. Photographer Karim Shamsi-Basha, who has had work published in Sports Illustrated, Time, Newsweek and People, gave his services for free and the printing costs were covered by Alabama Power.
Special mention must also go to Major Mark Brown, Tree Gentle Davidson and John Tidwell for their work in producing the book and also for their willingness that it be featured in All the World.
Copies of Shelter from the Storm can be purchased through www.booksamillion.com