News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Dear Anonymous

Photographer Joanne Arnold finds compassion on the streets of Portland

by | Dec 5, 2020

Mike. photo/Joanne Arnold

I have stumbled out of bed before dawn every morning for 12 years to take photographs. Most often I wander the Portland waterfront, drawn by the light and the water and the detritus of working wharfs. 

I soon discovered that this waterfront is inhabited not only by fishermen and seagulls, but by the city’s unhoused population. I pretty much had to step over them to get into the coffee shop at 5:30 a.m. Then a day came when I could no longer ignore the people I saw sleeping in alleys and crouched in doorways. They were as much a part of the scenery as lobster boats, traps, and empty Fireball nips in the gutter.

I had a moment of reckoning. How many ways had I avoided their eyes? How many times had I strategized how to get down the street without any interaction? And how would I choose to act now, faced with people I had dismissed and rendered invisible? I’d recently been ordained as an interfaith chaplain, and this chaplaincy is all about meeting others where they are. Well, here they were. And here I was. Could we meet?

At first I made little effort to photograph anyone. Just a simple “Good morning,” eye contact, and being present was a start. Then it was, “Would you like a coffee?”

The people I met were hungry to share stories. And I was story-starved. It was actually they who first requested to be photographed. I met Joe Blaze, Dr. Beek, and Ray, who nicknamed me Legs as we sat on a pier known as the Cut, a.k.a. Drunkards Alley. 

Mike, unhoused for most of his forty-something years, would greet me most mornings while sitting on the sidewalk outside the coffee shop with his little cardboard sign that read “ANYTHING HELPS,” next to an overturned hat to collect change. Usually he was warm-hearted and candid. I’d arrive with two coffees and we’d sit and chat. I’d watch people ignore us. I’d bring a coat for him if it was cold, rain pants when he was soaked in a storm, a pair of boots as snow melted on his sneakers. And then I finally asked, “What would help?”

“Tell the story,” Mike replied. “And socks. Socks would help.”

Mike wanted to communicate what it was like out here for himself and others. He wanted to bring attention to his “street family” and the bond they share, a connection seldom visible to the housed. And he wanted this family — alcoholics, drug addicts, the mentally ill, the traumatized — to be recognized as fully, deeply human. 

I would meet his friends on the street. Seemed everybody needed socks or could benefit from a cup of coffee and an opportunity to be heard, to be acknowledged. As I began to photograph those who granted permission, I realized that, for these people, the simple act of being seen is empowering. 

I posted images of Mike on social media and shared a little of what he or others shared with me, and what I felt and observed: their struggles, their joys, their shame, their love, their worries and frustrations, their humor and heartbreak, their pain and delusions, their triumphs and exhaustions. 

Turns out we had a lot in common. We all had wounds. They may’ve been homeless, but they certainly were not heartless. And though the behavior of some could be challenging at times, one man put it this way: “I don’t always like what they do, but I gotta love ’em.”

At the time, I was also photographing at MaineWorks, an innovative employment company in Portland that exclusively hires felons and addicts in recovery. I saw how these people were reconfiguring the lives they had burnt down to ashes. I saw them rise and I saw them shine, becoming standout members of the community. Many of them related to the more emotionally raw images from the street. “That was me,” they’d say. 

I deeply respected and admired the men and women I met at MaineWorks. They had been to hell and back, and their mere survival was against all odds, let alone their flourishing. Having witnessed this, it was impossible to turn my back on someone on the street, even when they were vomiting on the sidewalk; even when, with bulging eyes, they nervously picked through garbage cans looking for needles. 

It’s stressful living on the street. There’s nowhere to go, really — particularly since COVID arrived and so much has shut down. It feels vulnerable, too. You’re living your life on a public stage, a stage where you are not welcome. 

It felt deeply intimate to photograph this family. Sometimes the camera would come up and their veil would drop and all I could see was what I’d call, for lack of a better term, “god.” It’s not that whatever led them to the street, or whatever keeps them out here, was unimportant, but that was not the point. This was an invitation to connect beyond the patina of grime, the nicotine-stained fingers, the swollen faces. And they, in turn, looked past my housed condition, my car, my camera. Reason played no role in these moments. In that way, this experience has been wonderfully unreasonable.

Sharing stories via social media allowed many housed people to engage with this narrative on the street. I was surprised when unsolicited offers to provide resources arrived. People began to offer money for coffee cards. They started to send socks. My posts began to address “Dear Anonymous” as a way to show these donors the effects of their giving, as well as to extend our gratitude. 

As the weeks and months went by, viewers became more familiar with Mike and others. They worried on their behalf. They held them in their prayers. They celebrated their victories and vicariously suffered their setbacks and relapses. We all sighed when someone fell from grace, we collectively grieved each death, and gradually, unreasonably, we fell in love.

How beautiful it was to see donations arrive from all over the country: from artists donating a portion of their sales; from people in active recovery giving back; from families who’ve had, or still have, members living unhoused; from parents of children who’ve died on these streets from overdose or suicide; from families with children who slept on these bricks and are now, with amazing grace, housed, in school or working. One of our most generous contributors was living on this waterfront just two years ago.

A few times each week, as we hand out socks and boxer briefs and coats at 6 a.m., the line between us and them is snuffed out. We erase that line with the toes of our boots, whether those boots are scuffed and shabby or polished and left next to the locked door at night. Imagine having no door to close at night. Imagine having no boots.

Each morning, the hearts of the unhoused reveal themselves, and every day, Dear Anonymous reveals theirs. Are you cold? Here’s a coat. Thirsty? Here’s water. Turns out we can connect in this rarified space where, for just a moment, we can be together, not aiming to fix anything, not proclaiming to change what is, not judging one another nor expecting life to be any different. Not demanding anything at all, just: “Need socks? We got socks.”

In that moment, we meet and recognize one another as humans. We recognize that this is our community, not theirs and ours. This is our family. Like it or not, we are in this together, each of us struggling and mucking about, grappling with all manner of challenges, all of us with fracture lines and broken hearts, and all of us mad with love, too. So many human beings, all aching to connect. More important even than solutions, perhaps, we have found connection.

Dear Anonymous contributions can be made via paypal.me/joannearnoldefforts. The author can be contacted at jarnold@maine.rr.com

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