Project will document issues of homelessness in our community


Looking beyond the stereotypes of bag ladies on buses and panhandlers at freeway exits is only part of the idea behind a new photo project that matches up college students, faith communities and the homeless. 

The broader intent is to create a collection of photographs showing the places and issues of homeless persons, to document their struggles and successes, explains a woman who works to end homelessness by helping people find job training, affordable housing and supportive services.

The as yet unnamed project is different than “Homeless is my address, not my name,” which opened September 10 and is described as an oral history project of homelessness in Hennepin County.

What Ann Carlson wants is pictures of homeless persons as they go about their lives in hospitals and shelters, at community meal programs, at job training sites, not only the families but also the loners, both the short-term homeless and the chronically homeless.

Understanding homelessness, it seems, comes with photographically walking in another’s shoes.

Community Sketchbook focuses on the economic and social challenges facing communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color, and how people are trying to address them.

It is made possible by support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Minneapolis Foundation, and some Minneapolis Foundation donor advisors.

Community Sketchbook articles may be republished or distributed, in print or online, with credit to MinnPost and the foundations.

So Carlson, director of The Dignity Center, an outreach program of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, started looking for photographers, turning this fall to Jack Mader at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, a diverse campus, just like the population of Minnesota’s homeless.

Know, for instance, that according to the latest Wilder Research compilation of their homeless numbers and those of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and other local studies, there are 13,100 homeless any given night in Minnesota.

Of those homeless Minnesotans, 41 percent are African-American and African-born people.

Mader, lead faculty in the photography and digital imaging program at MCTC, and the college, jumped at the chance to sign on to the project, not the least because the college encourages its students to become engaged in community.

Mader called on Peter Koeleman, who teaches at MCTC, and is also a seasoned photo-journalist with a resume that includes 18 years at the Star Tribune, the last seven of them as director of photography.

Now he’ll be shepherding MCTC students as they document the life of the homeless in Minneapolis, keeping in mind issues of privacy.

“We’ve been talking about that quite a bit,” he said. “There’s always that exploitation factor. We will only photograph people who don’t object to having their photo taken. We’re very sensitive to that. We want to treat people with dignity and respect.”

After all, Koeleman said, 95 percent of the homeless are “invisible”to the wider population, living in shelters, couch-hopping and “embarrassed” by their homelessness. “They’re trying very hard to get out of the situation and they can’t and they need help.”  

Students will be taking pictures through the school year, with some photos going up at Hennepin United Methodist this fall, as well as at the 13 other congregations making up Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness.

Down the line, we hope to show you some of the fruits of their labor.