I met “Gypsy” at a rest stop at the top of a mountain pass. He was wearing a woman’s dress and had a scarf wrapped around his head. He sat barefoot on a bench with a bottle of Windex and a rag politely asking people who passed by if he could clean their car windows for a small donation. “Gypsy” said he has lived in his car for several years because he prefers to travel and be free from the expectations of a society he “doesn’t fit into.” ©Tracy J Thomas, 2015. All rights reserved.
I think often about the strangers I have met. They come to me in different places on their journey; the young, the old, the worn, and the tired. They each have a story to tell, written in the pain along the edges of their faces and the in shadows that have settled in their eyes.
Nikolei, Jamie & Spike in Old Sacramento, CA, 2010. This photo is from the first time I met Nikolei and Jamie. Nikolei, 20, was laid off from his job at FedEx and began living on the streets after he could not find another job and could no longer pay rent. He had been homeless for 6 months. Jamie, 16, was kicked out of her parent’s house 2 months prior and felt safe hanging out with Nikolei and Spike. She sold her skateboard the week before so they would have some money for food. The two had plans to make their way up to Washington where Nikolei hoped to find work. ©Tracy J Thomas. All rights reserved.
There is something that draws me to them. Some distant feeling of recognition. I understand their pain, their sorrows, their fears. A piece of me wants to ignore them and move on with my day in search of beauty. While a part of me feels drawn to stop and talk to them, it is at the risk of revisiting those dark memories hidden away so conveniently inside my mind.
They are a reflection of all that can go wrong with this life, with the mind, the heart, the body, and soul. Lost in the shuffle of humanity and caught in a downward cycle of demise, they exist on the other side of the thin veil between a successful life and some sordid alternate reality. The mirror they hold up forces us to look into ourselves and question our
own choices and circumstance, and causes us to wonder why this world can be so incredibly cruel. So we divert our eyes, walk on by, and pretend they don’t exist.
I met Charles on K Street, Sacramento, CA, 2011. Charles grew up without either of his parents. Both of them were incarcerated from the time he was a baby so he was raised by an aunt and uncle who abused and neglected him. In his early twenties he got married, had two children and began using drugs and alcohol heavily. He divorced and ended up homeless on the streets. Charles now suffers from chronic liver disease including Hep C and cirrhosis of the liver. His abdomen was swollen and painful and he had recently filled out the paperwork to receive medical assistance. He chooses to sleep in the woods. ©Tracy J Thomas. All rights reserved.
Are they there because of the choices they make? Or have their lives been dismantled by ugly circumstances beyond their control, by the terrifying things we cannot see? Who are we to judge them? Really. We are all human beings. That is our common ground from the beginning.
I am always surprised when I take the risk and reach out to talk with those strangers who cross my path. Some of their stories are harrowing, some extremely sad. While others admit to choices that have lead them to where they sit, others are like free spirits who choose to remain there, like gypsies, unbound by societal demands. Some are clearly in need of help for both physical and mental ailments but lack the resources and the ability to seek it on their own.
I met Christina and Ears on Market Street, San Francisco, CA, 2010. Christina had been homeless off and on for five years. She suffered from bipolar disorder and at one point suffered from Neutropenia related to the psychotropic medication they gave her in the hospital. She turned to self medicating with heroin when she ended up on the streets. Christina was passionate about rats and bred and raised them to sell the babies to pet stores. She was receiving Methadone treatment for her addiction to heroin at the time I met her. ©Tracy J Thomas. All rights reserved.
Some have been well educated with degrees and plenty of job experience. I have met teachers, artists, musicians, and even a former attorney. Each one had a different story surrounding the tipping point that lead them out onto the streets. Many have spent their lives running from the shadows of an ugly childhood, and like the many Veterans I meet, are struggling with the horrors of PTSD.
I met Malcolm on L Street in Sacramento, CA, in 2010. Malcolm had been homeless for four years. He had to leave home when he was 18 and when he couldn’t find a job to pay rent, he decided to hop freight trains and see the country. He had visited 48 states and was on his way down to Florida with his two dogs and his girlfriend. ©Tracy J Thomas. All rights reserved.