So, after graduated college, I ran with an idea I had in high school, where I would travel the country trading lunches for interviews with homeless people throughout the US to put their stories and experiences into a book called Fifty Sandwiches.

After funding a Kickstarter in 2016, I began planning the trip, and a few months later took off on my solo journey in my $1200 van named Milo from my home base in Coeur d'Alene, ID. I taught myself photography throughout the trip and nervously began approaching people on the street and in shelters, in hopes of getting a 'collective face to homelessness'.

It took about 5 interviews in Portland for me to realize my mission was impossible, as I'd have to interview 500,000+ people to get an honest look at the homeless experience. I soon decided the mission of the project would be to capture the diversity and subsequent complexities of the homeless population, in hopes of showing that there is more to homelessness than being homeless.

Without a budget, an agent, editor, designer, etc, I had to learn a whole new set of 'skills' to finally push this thing out 3 YEARS after the trip was completed. I work full time, so I could only work on the book on weeknights and weekends. The amount of work was far beyond anything I could have ever predicted, and I still have a LONG way to go. But hey, I signed up for this, and few things worth doing are easy, it's my creation and I might as well complete it to the best of my abilities.

Thanks for reading and PLEASE bother me with any questions, concerns, or insults. I am all ears:)

Comments: 100 • Responses: 35  • Date: 

velainaraptor58 karma

Would you spill all of your trauma, memories that hold shame, and stories of how you wound up where you are to a stranger for a cheap lunch (so that they can profit from it)? Is your life worth that little? If not, why treat strangers like theirs are?

Seriously, this feels gross and exploitative and I will take my downvotes and this opinion to my grave.

fiftysandwiches67 karma

I'm upvoting this comment- I think critique and curiosity are really important for this project, and I think you have a very valid point. I've dealt with a lot of self-guilt throughout this process, driving down a line somewhere between journalism and exploitation, and I explain this all in the author's bio. Much of this project was a moral dilemma, where I am forced to weigh ego and hypocrisy, where my name on the spine sends chills up my own.

This isn’t some project with steadfast conviction. The only aspects of the project that have not been questioned is that America’s homeless are in desperate need of a platform to be heard and understood and that I do not know what I am doing.

With that said, these interviews were much closer to intimate, informal discussions of two strangers sharing stories. I was surprised to see how many people were not just willing to share their experiences but eager to do so. Many people, especially those in a population so unheard and misconstrued, want the opportunity to have their stories told. I thought I would have great difficulty in finding people willing to share their stories with a complete stranger with a camera but was surprised to see just how many people were ready to share their experiences. Of course, I tried to dig a bit and find the philosophy behind the story and the story behind the philosophy. Humans Of New York takes a similar approach.

At shelters I visited (keep in mind these are people in the recovery process and more willing to share), they would even have a signup sheet because so many people were excited to have their story told. I've given your point a lot of thought, because in my mind how am I supposed to create a book based on the struggles of homeless people and expect it to be acceptable that I not share my own?

I was denied interviews plenty of times- I'd say it's about 50/50- if I'm ommitting New York City- I must have asked 50 people in NYC before getting 1 anonymous interview. I guess the conclusion I came is this:

I'm just a middle man, the channel through which these experiences are shared. I have no doubt that plenty of people share your perspective and for good reason. That's understandable, and I love hearing it because this is a community project built on the money of others (Kickstarter) and the stories of others, not mine. It came down to how the people felt when I interviewed them. Almost every interview ended with a hug, and I am NOT a hugger. I had people who stopped the interview halfway through, and I through the recording out. For the most part, however, these are stories that want to be told and need to be. A social crisis cannot be solved without first being understood. Chances are, I can't solve a damn thing, but maybe I can inspire who can.

I'd love to hear your response to this if you get a chance! I don't mean to come across as ignorant, I'm genuinely curious because this perspective is something I've dealt with internally throughout the project.

akak197223 karma

You gave a pretty good balanced answer to a difficult question.

That's the dichotomy - it's difficult for most people to evaluate and accept a "balanced" response to an emotionally loaded subject.

fiftysandwiches9 karma

Thank you, I greatly appreciate that! I understand this is an emotional, complex, and sometimes divisive issue that people may have strong feelings about, myself included.

I've learned a lot through both quantitative and qualitative research, so at this point, I am fairly confident of my beliefs regarding the project, even if that means consistently questioning my own motives and ethics.

When people are willing to share their critique on my project, I am always willing to listen. I can understand how someone believes this to be exploitation, and in all honesty, I cannot wholeheartedly disagree with them. Their points are valid, and they are making these points because they care. However, at this point, I'm trusting the voices of those I spoke to, and can take solace knowing that many were happy to share their story.

akak19722 karma

Thank you for such a ... balanced and gracious response.

Look up the NY homeless living in unmapped underground tunnels if you haven't already done so. Especially those who never want to come up to the surface at all.

Edit: if you are a million miles done in the NY aspect - sorry - did not mean to be preachy

fiftysandwiches1 karma

I will definitely have to do that! I have never heard of that. Thank you!

smuggydick1 karma

If people were willing to share their stories with you that's their choice. I think that attitude comes from being mad on someone else's behalf when the group you interviewed doesn't feel that way is kind of weird and can be damaging. From your responses it seems you were very respectful to the people you interviewed and getting their story told is important for the ones the agreed to share. Congrats with actually getting out there to do the interviews.

fiftysandwiches1 karma

Thank you, I greatly appreciate that. I agree with you on the basis of where that perspective may come from, and I understand it.

As you said, the reality is that the people I spoke to appreciated the chance to be heard, and that's all that matters to me.

thewhiterider2564 karma

Yes, because at the end of the day someone is, at the very LEAST, taking their time to speak to and acknowledge the plight, problems, and very existence of the homeless, which is far more than 99.99% of us other assholes do.

fiftysandwiches3 karma

You are absolutely right. I'm not going to pretend that simply having a talk with someone might change their life, BUT it is incredibly important to realize how your perception might unknowingly affect those with less.

If you are homeless, you are in the most vulnerable state you can possibly be. You may be wondering when your next meal is, where you are going to sleep, etc. Imagine being in that mindset and having the general populace cast you out as some sort of outsider! In general, people I spoke to were very happy and appreciative to have the chance to tell their story, just as I appreciated the chance to hear it.

akak19721 karma

I'd love to have a beer / coffee with you sometime if I ever happened to cross continents and recognize you as the poster

fiftysandwiches5 karma

I'm guessing those chances are slim, but same to you if you find yourself in North Idaho for whatever reason! :)

_winterofdiscontent_14 karma

So many questions spring to mind but can you start off with most compelling realization you've had during this project? People like to think that homelessness is due to a fell swoop of bad luck or a series of misjudgments or even due to a mental or emotional disorder. I've even heard it (callously) said that no one needs to be homeless if they don't want to be and they just need to sort themselves out. What's your take on it?

fiftysandwiches21 karma

In short: homelessness is far more complex and diverse than we give it credit for. I was watching a TedTalk by Chimamanda Adichie who said something like "it's not that stereotypes are untrue, it's that they don't share the full story.

If I have a book full of nothing but hardworking people facing adversity and pretend there’s no truth in stereotypes then I’m blinding my readers with my own ignorance. If I censor reality like that I give people a reason to doubt the validity of the profiles in the book. I spoke with drug addicts and alcoholics, I spoke with those suffering from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and I spoke with veterans and college graduates. Remember, some addicts might be veterans, others might have suffered tremendous abuse, others may be grieving the loss of a loved one, the list goes on.

Simply understanding that each homeless person you walk by on a given day has a lifetime of experiences, stories, and struggles just as complex as your own is the key to humanizing the homeless.

_winterofdiscontent_3 karma

So there is a common factor of addiction? Is that a cause or an effect? Which begat which?

So the compelling realization is that stereotypes exist but the reasons we give for them are shallow and the result of our lack of compassion.

Something happened on the train to work a couple of days ago. There was a scruffy maybe 40ish year old man on the train who was obviously off his medication, if he even had any. He was in his pyjama bottoms and a heavy-ish army drab coat. He had long hair and a long beard. And he was very upset, shouting to no one there about how unfair it all is, how the unseen antagonist was a murderer. He got to the doors first when we hit the last stop. As we all proceeded down the platform to the streets ahead, he turned around and shouted "What do you all want!?!" A few of us smiled broadly because it was so painfully adorable and painfully painful because he was in such distress but so damn cute at the same time.

I don't know whether the man was homeless but he looked the part, for sure. :(

Are they really all addicts in that country? That's really horrifying, don't you think?

fiftysandwiches23 karma

No- addiction is a horrible travesty that affects millions of people and leaves many homeless, but there is FAR more to homelessness than just addiction and mental health. I spoke with a woman who was homeless because she couldn't pay her mom's health bills after she died, I spoke with a man who was a veteran but stopped caring about anything after his daughter died, I spoke with a woman who was homeless because she left her insane, abusive husband, the list goes on.

As far as addiction goes, in my opinion, homelessness and addiction follow each other. Addiction can obviously lead to homelessness, but homelessness can also lead to addiction. If find yourself at rock bottom, at the end of society's food chain, where people are crossing the street to avoid you, where you can't leave your camp without fear of things being stolen, and where you have to wonder where your next meal is, I can see escaping into the world of drugs as a realistic option. It's unhealthy, unethical, unproductive, but understandable.

Lastly, I'd like to thank you for your questions. I can tell this is something you are very curious about and it means so much when people are willing to ask tough questions in search of tough answers. I'm no authority on the issue, I'm just some guy who has talked with a lot of shelters and homeless people, but I'll always try to provide insight where I can!

_winterofdiscontent_10 karma

Homelessness breaks my heart. It cannot justified on any level. This shouldn't be allowed to happen anywhere in the world and yet it happens to all people of all ages and for all the imaginable reasons, but not one of them is a good reason.

fiftysandwiches6 karma

I completely agree with you there

fiftysandwiches6 karma

I watched this amazing TedTalk with (I think) Chimimanda Adichi, and she said: "the thing with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, it's that they don't show the full story".

Stereotypes are there for a reason- maybe human conditioning, maybe some hold them for personal protection for fear of the unknown. Ignorance is this blindfold, and it takes great humility to surrender your convictions and see issues for what they really are. In the case of homelessness, it's incredibly complex and diverse. That was my main takeaway.

For instance, if I talk with someone who is an addict, there's going to be more to it than that. I spoke to addicts who were veterans, some suffered tremendous physical and emotional abuse, others were grieving for lost family, for others it was an active choice, and they admitted that. To show the stereotype of an "addict" as nothing but takes away from every aspect of their life they've had up until that point.

TranquilSeaOtter12 karma

Is there bias in your work towards interviewing those who are homeless because of any reason that doesn't include mental health? It seems like many who are on the streets are there because of a lack of support for their mental health and I was curious to know if you were able to interact with that population or if you stuck to interviewing people who were mentally sane but homeless due to other reasons (loss of job, etc.).

fiftysandwiches11 karma

Naturally, I cannot definitively state that there will be no bias, because I did pick and choose stories to be in the book. With that said, mental health is a huge part of the book, because it's a large part of the homeless population. I interviewed quite a few people suffering from mental health problems, and many are highlighted within the covers.

I don't want to sound redundant, but I'm going to copy and paste what I put in another answer: "If I have a book full of nothing but hardworking people facing adversity and pretend there’s no truth in stereotypes then I’m blinding my readers with my own ignorance. If I censor reality like that I give people a reason to doubt the validity of the profiles in the book. "

Now the book’s intent is to capture a glimpse, not the face, but a glimpse into what homelessness is. A testament to the sheer diversity and subsequent complexities of the homeless population.

brain-eating-amoeba4 karma

Collectively, what is it that the homeless people in America really want?

What I am trying to ask, from an elite, priveleged, full bellied, roof-over-my-head perspective it is easy for me to suggest what I think homeless people want from us.

Baloney. I have never been there. I don't know shit.

If the next President could give the Homeless people a gift, what is it THEY would want?

fiftysandwiches5 karma

That's a tough question. The easiest answer: to be seen as people. My goal is to spread awareness and understanding. f I can make someone turn their head when they pass a homeless person I have done my job. When you turn your head you are deliberately giving your preconceived notions a second thought. The greatest adversity homelessness faces is ignorance, not being taken seriously as a real crisis in our country. If I can turn your head, then I can force you to acknowledge that person’s existence and their struggles.

The best thing that can be done (aside from fixing the problems that lead to homelessness: healthcare, mental health clinics, VA service, etc), is the donating and volunteering for long-term programs. The problem with this is that it still requires a great deal of effort from homeless individuals and families.

As much as we want to believe that helping a panhandler will solve the problem, short-term solutions don’t offer long-term stability. Helping with long-term programs ensures the efficiency of vital programs that actually work to get homeless people back up on their feet permanently.

These programs demand consistency and dedication from the people they help. To be a member of the program, you need to get up at a certain time, you need to be back at the shelter at a certain time, and you need to prove your willingness to better yourself all the time. It’s not just a full-time job or commitment, it’s literally a lifestyle.

Mala-Dee4 karma

My original comment was quickly removed and this might follow too but here we go:

You will never understand and capture what homelessness is unless you are homeless yourself. Not for 4 months, not "pretend" but without a safety net, without any contact with family and friends, without knowing where your next meal is coming from or if there will be a tomorrow for you. You can't pause your life and try to understand something so out of your reach because you have never experienced the raw fear of not having a safe place to even sit down. Turning a major problem into a curiosity you can publish is at best selfish. How self-absorbed are you really? Why not do a Kickstarter to help these people instead of funding your cross-country vacation?

KoreanJesusPleasures2 karma

I don't think that was his primary mission. He states it was to be a sort of middle man, a vehicle to share stories from those willing to share.

Mala-Dee1 karma

Without understanding,  there is no story. Besides,  we all know the stories. The subject has been abused and exploited for years because it looks good on a resume. This is the equivalent of going around a church with the collection plate then stepping out to chat with the poor, toss them a coin from the collection and write about in the local paper: "Bob just told me a funny story. You know Bob, the beggar sitting by the third column on the right at the square, the skinny one with the red rags..  So anyway.. He got a new scar fighting with the butcher's dog! Imagine that! Same old Bob, wrestling scraps from dogs. Hilarious!" Enjoying your story? Lack of understanding only leads to ignorance.

fiftysandwiches3 karma

I think you may learn a lot from some of the stories on the site and in the book, but this is an issue I'll gladly expand upon:

In Portland, I talked with a man whose daughter had died from a medication mixup. He didn't care about moving on or continuing forward in any way. His livelihood had been reduced to only a desire to exist and endure. He was at a time in his life when happiness seemed to be distant in the rearview and hope had little ground to stand on.

My time spent in a van wasn't meant to mimic homelessness, just like my attempts at understanding this man's pain will never be able to actually add up.

I walked away from that interview and didn’t quite know what to think. I’ve never had an experience like that. If my goal is to understand their stories and form connections with these people, how can I empathize when I haven’t had any emotional experiences of similar magnitude? Is listening to his story enough? I can’t feel the pain he has, but it is enough to understand his perspective and how he got there?

See, the point of the book is to foster the realization that there is more to homelessness than being homeless. It’s our unwillingness to recognize the depth and complexities of people living on the street that allows us to pass it off as a social runoff. As far as I am concerned, these are stories that want to be told and NEED to be heard. Just because we can't fully comprehend the struggles others face doesn't mean we shouldn't try, however futile that may be.

Many people I spoke to felt (justifiably so) that they were dehumanized and looked down upon by society. I'd like this book to present the complexities and diversities of homelessness in a way that encourages people to see homelessness for what it really is. Your statement on "Bob" is exactly what I'm trying to avoid. These aren't my personal accounts of 'profiles' I meet on the street, these are their actual stories and experiences that they wanted to share. By that account, to suggest that a homeless person sharing their upbringing, reasons for homelessness, and experience being homeless fosters ignorance is entirely antithetical to the true accounts and social issues these stories abide by.

Mala-Dee1 karma

Let's remove the context and see what your own story tells us:

"In Portland, I talked with a man whose daughter had died from a medication mixup. He didn't care about moving on or continuing forward in any way. His livelihood had been reduced to only a desire to exist and endure. He was at a time in his life when happiness seemed to be distant in the rearview and hope had little ground to stand on. "

A grieving father in emotional distress. Is he homeless? Who knows. Did you get the story while sipping tea on his front porch? Maybe. Millions of people have sad stories. You are not showing what it is to be homeless but what it is to grieve. You already missed the point. What you saw in this man has nothing to do with homelessness. A tragedy may have lead him to the street but what it is to be on the street? Another heartbreaking story to join the hefty lineup of homeless "reality" shows and "a week under a bridge" books. Did you help anyone? Did you put a roof over someone's head? Did you assist someone to find therapy or medical help? Did you lead someone sick to a shelter? Did you contact Salvation Army and St. Vincent's in the areas you are in and volunteer to help with homeless care? Did you assist the caregivers of shelters give a shower to a homeless that has not seen running water in years and behaves like a feral cat when he feels the water on his skin? Did you serve the homeless who's been on the street for so long they have forgotten how to hold a fork? Did you help the shelters clean up rat and flea infested encampments and relocate homeless to shelters? No, you did not. You were there sponsored by others, promoting your own future, treating the homeless like a curiosity and going back to your cozy, clean safety to write about it.

fiftysandwiches2 karma

Well, my book is a nonprofit, so it's not as if I'm making any money from this thing. If I break even, that'd be great, but I don't plan to. I am working with The Salvation Army actually, and while I did help shelters throughout the trip, it certainly wasn't to any dramatic extent, but merely assistance while I was there.

To answer the rest of your concerns: You seem to be under the misunderstanding that I am claiming to solve homelessness in any way or claiming to "put a roof over someone's head". I am far more concerned with what people are within the covers of the book have to think about this project than I am about a concerned Redditor. It sounds like you are trying to defend a group of people without exactly understanding their experiences or my intentions. After all, homeless people, people working in day shelters or long-term shelters, and homeless coalitions have been interested in the project and hearing the voices of the homeless.

Your statement "What you saw in this man has nothing to do with homeless" is EXACTLY the point I am trying to make. While it was very obvious his tragic story did in fact contribute to his homelessness, the point I'm making is that there is more to homeless people than simply being homeless. Not only that, but there are 49 other stories in the book all offering a different perspective. Some discuss past experience, some discuss reasons for being homeless, some discuss their experience being homeless. They vary.

I'm a channel through which these stories can be told. I spoke to people having to relocate their encampments because of fires, I spoke to people with severe mental health issues, and I spoke with shelters, long-term programs, etc throughout the nation. A total of 0 people I have talked to, all with more experience than you or I, have shared your perspective.

To make an assumption, you seem to have great care in the homeless population and seem to be concerned about their safety and exploitation, which is laudable. Again, I'm not sure if you have done this, but I'd highly recommend heading to a long-term shelter and talking with both the staff and people staying in the shelter. I think you'll find that many people want to share their stories, and I feel strongly that these are stories that should be told.

fiftysandwiches1 karma

Hi! I appreciate your insight here and just wanted to direct you to the response I posted in the comment below if you'd like to hear my answer! (Albeit, a day later)!

e1363 karma

Hi /u/fiftysandwiches

If you haven't been, you need to check out Venice Beach, Los Angeles. It's very unique because it's the only city I've seen where the homeless are someone respected and seen as part of the community's culture. There are certainly many that fear and dislike the homeless but there is also a respect. I think it stems from the Venice boardwalk where many (along with non-homeless) perform and sell items. The area has become a tourist destination famous for its grimy but unique culture. I personally have never felt unsafe around them because most are quite friendly. But many people I know do feel unsafe as they probably would around any homeless areas. This area has a huge number of homeless. In addition to the ~100 on the boardwalk there are many more throughout the area. I've talked to several. One story I heard was this man was given a bus trip here from Kansas city. I would assume that story is not unique and may partially explain the large numbers.

Edit: I now see that you did visit LA. Did you get to Venice? Do you agree with my assessment?

fiftysandwiches2 karma

Yes I did go to Venice Beach, it was a very intriguing place, to say the least! For the most part, I would argue that my experience was close to yours. My favorite interview was actually a Venice Beach interview I did with an artist on the beach who chose to be homeless. He adopted this incredible minimalist perspective and was the most passionate, genuine, and thoughtful person I had ever met. He was attached to his art that I watched him cry when someone wanted to purchase his favorite painting. He consoled himself saying "that's okay, my job is to plant seeds of positive thought in people's minds. If they water it, it'll grow", and I don't need to abide by his lifestyle to see the worth in it.

I never felt unsafe there, but I think one thing that might happen in this area is that homeless people who might be more dangerous are attracted to the area because they see it as an opportunity. This not only causes tourists more distress but the people living on the beach selling artwork as well. BTW, I have heard of people being bussed from city to city quite a bit as a form of "homeless control", but I don't have stats to validate that in any way.

Hepcatoy3 karma

Interesting project.

Homelessness and mental illness seems to be a combination for some individuals. What was your experience with this? Did you encounter many people who could/ should be helped with their illness? What was your experience with psychiatric treatment with homelessness?

Thank you.

fiftysandwiches5 karma

I experienced a number of people suffering from mental illnesses. I learned throughout the project that homelessness isn't so much the issue; it's our failed social structures that allow people to fall through the cracks that is the issue. Homelessness is just the endgame consequence.

I'm no authority on speaking about the psychiatric treatment of people who are homeless, but I can safely assume that the homeless experience will make any mental health issues far worse, or will spur mental issues and psychosis that were not there previously. The issue varies greatly, so it's very tricky to pin down individual treatments. Some are veterans, so the VA may be able to help there, some are sufferers of child abuse, the list goes on.

Obviously I can't expect someone suffering from severe schiz to seek treatment on their own, so it's hard for me to say what the next move is there. There are plenty of amazing programs that help homeless people with mental health issues, but I don't know how a homeless person would even be aware of them, much less jump in to the demanding commitments required by these systems.

esquemo3 karma

I avoid homeless people because they seem dangerous. There are cases of homeless people harming or killing people, including children (Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard) come to mind. What’s would you recommend regarding direct interaction relative to this perception?

Also, do you, and why do you think this is a government or taxpayer problem to solve? They seem able to get to populated areas and mooch off of people, why can’t they earn a living instead of begging?

fiftysandwiches6 karma

That's an instinctual reaction, and one I can't really blame you for. It's natural to be apprehensive around those who we may perceive as dangerous, and unfortunately, homeless people often fall into that category. I suspect this stereotype is due to mental illnesses and addiction. As I've mentioned in this thread, stereotypes aren't untrue, they just don't represent the entire story. You might see the homeless man on the street corner yelling his voice away at strangers, but you won't see the family sleeping in their car in the Walmart parking lot.

This makes direct interaction difficult in street settings, but I truly think if you visited a long-term program, you would be surprised to see the types of people who find themselves at rock bottom. Many Americans are just a paycheck away from being homeless themselves.

Based on your 2nd question, you seem to just be referring to panhandlers or those who choose to be homeless. (correct me if I'm wrong). I don't have the exact statistic on hand, but that is only a small portion of the homeless population. Personally, I rarely give to panhandlers and don't really encourage others to do so. It's important to remember that most of the homeless population are the people you don't see: those living in long-term programs, day shelters, their cars, tucked away in camps, etc. Homelessness is an incredibly diverse group of people, so to suggest they are all panhandlers or beggers is simply ignoring those who were just introduced to the unexpected with nowhere to go.

There are 500,000is homeless people at any given point in the United States, but 3 million people experience homelessness in one year. So although there are many chronically homeless individuals, the system for the vast majority is a revolving door, where people who recently lost their job, had unexpected health bills, etc, find themselves with nothing left.

The idea of it being an easy task to find a job and earn a living right off the bat isn't quite as simple as many would think. Personally, I think it would be difficult to find a job that pays any sort of livable wage without a phone, address, possibly without a nice set of clothes, a computer, etc. There are a lot more barriers to getting out of homelessness than meets the eye!

Hopefully I answered some of your questions here, let me know if you have more:)

mayonaise_plantain3 karma

Malcom Gladwell has a wonderful little excerpt is his book, "What the Dog Saw" about homelessness and how the portion of "long term homeless" people follow a sharp hockey stick curve. That is - there is a very small portion of homeless who are continually on and off the streets for years and years, apparently suffering far worse off from addiction and sickness than the mass majority of homeless who are short term and only in need of temporary boosts to often never return to the streets after one or two stints of leas than 30 days.

My question is: did you see this curve in your travels, or could you speak to it?

Gladwell's book was published in the 2000s, so his sources may be out of date by now, but I often find myself thinking of that excerpt.


fiftysandwiches2 karma

Absolutely. There are 500,000 homeless people at any given point in the US. However, 3 million people experience homelessness per year. That is to say, it's largely a revolving door. For those who are chronically homeless, this may be due to mental health, addiction, or perhaps its just a choice.

Public perception dictates that the homeless population is filled with chronically homeless individuals, but the reality is far from it. Of course, I found that many of those who were chronically homeless had equally unique and diverse experiences and stories to tell.

_roxbox_3 karma

What was one of the challenges in asking the homeless individuals the tough questions? Were most open to a chat?

fiftysandwiches3 karma

I gradually learned the interview process and how I can approach people and get them to open up. Because I often had to dig into their past trials and tribulations, I found it necessary to share my own personal doubts and struggles. This opened up the conversation to more of an intimate discussion between 2 strangers.

With most interviews, the was almost a 'breaking point', where they began to trust me and I was able to carefully and thoughtfully encourage them to answer the tough questions with tough answers. These were incredibly hard for me to hear at the time, much less once I was by myself in the van tasked with transcribing a 3-hour interview! I did my best to balance journalistic diligence and respect for others. If anyone decided they didn't want to share something or didn't want a portion of the interview to be in the final cut, I would abandon it. I only want to share the experiences and stories that they wanted people to hear.

HoodButNerdish2 karma

Be honest, did you just do it to say, you lived in a van down by the river?

fiftysandwiches1 karma

Well.. that was a part of it. I mean, I definitely slept by the river a few times and watched a lot of SNL...

jacf3522 karma

Have you read Orwell’s book “Down and Out in London and Paris”. If yes, was your project based on his work by any chance? And can you compared your experience to his by any chance?

fiftysandwiches1 karma

I have not! I'll have to add that one to the list though:)

Connorheats1 karma

What’s your weirdest story?

fiftysandwiches3 karma

Hmm... that's a tricky one. So let me preface this by noting very clearly that some homeless people suffer from drug addictions and this account IN NO WAY summarizes my experience with those suffering from said addiction. With that said, here's an account from the book below. This is the only instance where I speak in first person or voice my personal perspective within the profiles, but I felt it was necessary to illustrate the imminent danger in my interview with Eva, and her subsequent reaction.

"Eva’s statements were interrupted by a scuffle that broke out at the table next to us, about five feet away. After an apparent dispute over acquiring money for crack cocaine, one man pulled out a knife and lunged at the other’s neck. Two other men, who had been apart of their conversation, intervened and struggled to gain control of the weapon, as the blade was just inches away from the man’s neck.

As I sat back in shock fearing for my own safety, Eva remained abnormally calm as she continued to eat her sandwich. She spoke quietly, “Guys, you’re supposed to be nice to each other”. As expected, her words of peace did little to quell the situation. As the struggle continued, she turned her back to the fight and continued with her thought as if she hadn’t just witnessed an attempted murder.

Half an hour later as our conversation continued, the original aggressor approached our table and began questioning me. With the assumption that I was ‘taking advantage of homeless people’, he began making ambiguous threats, asking me where my van was, and telling me interviewing the homeless is ‘how motherfuckers get their brain bashed in”. Again, Eva completely ignores this threat and even attempts to speak over him."

Connorheats1 karma

Sounds like stuff like that happens a lot, thanks for answering my question.

fiftysandwiches2 karma

That was only once though! In fact, I must have done about 50 street interviews and that was the ONLY one where I ever felt unsafe. However, it is objectively unsafe to be living on the streets for any period of time. I was only out there for a few hours at a time after all!

dreadbeard1 karma

How can Darth Vader breathe and talk at the same time?

fiftysandwiches1 karma

I have a paralyzed vocal cord from a heart surgery as an infant, so I can do somewhat of a darth vader voice. Maybe he has a paralyzed vocal cord as well?

JesusCumelette1 karma

Right on!

I've been planning a similar path the past couple years and will kick off full time in March living in a van. My goal is to bring awareness that there are multiple reasons why people are homeless and at the same time help them out with supplies.

Did you pop in, offer some food for interview and leave? Spend a night or two in a camp?

Was the KS only enough to fund the van($1200)?

I'm a famous potato plate man myself!

fiftysandwiches1 karma

Really! Wow, kudos to you! If you have any interest in chatting a bit, I'd love to give you any pointers (if I have any) on how to go about your journey!

The KS funded about 10k, though some of it was mine. The van was $1200 and was my baby for the trip, Milo did a tremendous job. The rest went to gas money for the most part. I was sleeping in Walmart parking lots, showering at Planet Fitness, and eating mostly rice and sausage. I drove 14000 miles on like 12mpg, so most of it went to gas for sure!

So, ironically, I barely had lunch with any homeless people. If someone is at a day shelter, they just ate. If they are living on the street, they can't leave their belongings behind. If they are at a long-term program, then they most likely cannot leave. The project at this point has very little to do with the name, but hey that goes with the adage that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover.

So what I did is about a week before I would go to a new city, I would email all of the shelters in the area. (I have an entire spreadsheet and if you email me [[email protected]](mailto:[email protected]), I'd be happy to share it with you!). Most did not get back to me, but some did. I would go to the shelters and do interviews, which would usually take a full day, then return to my home on wheels at the nearest Walmart to transcribe the interviews on my laptop and sleep.

For the street interviews, I would just try to approach whoever I could and did my best not to judge while also being safe. I definitely got into a few sticky situations though and wouldn't really recommend that to anyone going solo. Nonetheless, the point of the project was to capture the diversity, and that demands street interviews. However, people in long-term programs are far more likely to share their story, because they are on the come-up so to speak.

I'm hoping you'll read this and get back to me, because I'd love to jump on a phone call and answer any questions (if you have any) on my interview process, etc. I also would love to hear more about your project!

JesusCumelette2 karma

For the past two years I have rented a room for the winter and chose to live without a home the rest of the time. I lost my home/business due to medical reasons/bills prior. It's pretty sketchy at times for sure. This past summer I spent a month in S. Oregon and met some interesting people to say the least.

I'll dm info

fiftysandwiches1 karma

I'd love to hear more about it! I'd love for the book to not end with the last page, and to continue sharing stories like yours. Feel free to DM me!

throwawayoopshehe1 karma

this is amazing. what are some of the key things you’ve learned on your travels about life and interviewing people? any major ah-ha! moments?

fiftysandwiches8 karma

That's a good question! As I mentioned in the description, I learned right away that I would need to do 500,000+ interviews to get a collective "face" to homelessness. The last question I asked every person I interviewed was "What would you say to society if you could about the homeless experience?".

The resounding answer was "it can happen to you". Nobody starts here, and many of us are just a medical bill, a job loss, or a natural disaster from being in the same shoes of those we ignore each day. To hear that answer so consistently was definitely my main takeaway. Homelessness is largely circumstantial, and not so much the issue, as the consequence of failed social structures.

Thanks for asking, let me know if you have any other questions!

tom_m_ryan1 karma

Can I just say "Thank you" to you for all of your work and effort, even though, as I understand it this will get me banned for life from this subreddit?

fiftysandwiches2 karma

Haha well thank you for the risk you are taking there! Also, thank you so much! I'm usually fairly hard on myself because I don't want to mix pride with ego and because this project isn't about me, but I greatly appreciate hearing sentiments like that.

lilsspam1 karma

Hey! I'm a 16 year old in Ireland helping to write and also acting in a play about homelessness. Is there any stereotypes that should be avoided? What do you think the most important thing we can say in this play is (specific things)? We're trying to put a face to homelessness and explain it can occur to anyone due to many different circumstances. You are an inspiration!

fiftysandwiches2 karma

Thank you so much! Your question is a little difficult to answer for me. Stereotypes are evident within the homeless population simply because they are the loudest and most visible. Of course, it can happen to anyone, as many of us are just a paycheck or two away from finding ourselves in that position.

I found that homelessness is both a result of circumstances as well as systemic issues. You name it: cost of healthcare, a job loss, a natural disaster, addiction, mental illness, a veteran with trouble readjusting to society, domestic violence, abuse, LGTBQ intolerance, the list goes on. ANYONE can find themselves without a backup plan when met with the unexpected. The book has a 51st profile titled "Your Name Here" which basically makes this point, stating nobody starts here. Life is complex and unpredictable, and homelessness is a slippery slope.

"It can happen to you" was something I heard from nearly every person I came across, and something that is very important to note.

38Poole0 karma

We’re you just in Death Valley a couple weeks ago?

fiftysandwiches1 karma

I was not :D

MyFavoriteBurger0 karma


Just one question, but might be a difficult one.

From all the interviews, what is it that homeless people hate the most?


fiftysandwiches6 karma

Hmmm... hate is a strong word. I'm not going to say this is something homeless people hate, but what they were most disappointed by was the mischaracterization of the homeless situation as a whole. The goal of the project is to "humanize the homeless" because so many people (myself included) tend to judge others based on their preconceived notions of what it means to be homeless. All I hope to do is foster the realization that there is more to homelessness than just being homeless.

akak1972-3 karma

The precursor to homelessness is loneliness.

Yes, 73% of US is 2 paychecks away from being homeless. But that hides the real issue.

No, any amount of bleeding heart welfare liberalism will not solve homelessness - or even understand it.

It simply boils down to this: under what conditions will human beings be happier to be kind than first "lets be safe"?

Look up the NY homeless that live in the unmapped underground tunnel pipes.

fiftysandwiches2 karma

I'm not really sure what you mean by a lot of this. Yes, being homeless is a very lonely reality, but the bottom line is that long-term programs have proven to be helpful at getting people back on their feet permanently.

8008135__-5 karma

Serious Question tho:

Why do homeless people gotta be like they do?

fiftysandwiches2 karma

Hmm.. can you elaborate a little bit?

Homelessness is incredibly circumstantial. I spoke with addicts, veterans, people suffering from mental health issues, people waiting on disability, college graduates, families, the list goes on. The issue is, people see the dirt-plastered man with a shopping cart on the street corner far more often than they will see the family sleeping in their car at Walmart, and even he/she has a story to tell. The most visible of any population will always be seen as the primary demographic, and that's what this project is trying to disprove.

8008135__1 karma

no, just wondering why it gotta be like it do

fiftysandwiches1 karma

Sometimes I just guess it gotta be what it's gonna be, ya feel?