By Dennis Lopez
It’s a crisp late fall Saturday afternoon in Boise’s Anne Morrison Park. Dozens of people play with dogs of all sizes; even more people take advantage of the warmish afternoon to play Frisbee or simply enjoy the sunshine.
A caravan of high dollar SUVs cruises the parking lots looking for a parking place, passing by a tired-looking red van with nearly every inch of it covered in clothing, coats, sleeping bags and blankets. It looks like a portable yard sale. Yet the car and the little family of three-soon-to-be-four that belong to it go unnoticed.
This is a story about that family — let’s call the father Bob, his wife Sarah and their 2-year-old daughter, Emma. And just as their van fits in a small spot between upscale cars, they are in a spot between America’s haves and have nots.
On this afternoon, I am out looking for photos both for the magazine and the stock photo company for which I do freelance work. It is the dogs that catch my eye and bring me into the park. They are everywhere: running, barking, jumping into the water to retrieve balls or chasing Frisbees across the vast lawns. Okay, but predictable, action shots. But it is the van that draws my attention.
At heart, I am a photojournalist. It is my training to poke my unblinking camera into places it often isn’t invited, but somehow, today things seem different. I feel as though taking photos of this family is an intrusion into their private lives. The van is not simply their car, it is their home. Their lives are on display, not by choice, but by circumstances.
Normally I would submit photos like theirs to the stock agency with a bland caption reading “Homeless people in Boise take advantage of good late-fall weather to prepare their van for winter,” or something of the sort. But not this time. Something in the viewfinder resonates with me beyond a compelling photo. I feel that I must learn about these people. I first ask the woman in the van for permission to photograph them and after an uneasy couple of minutes, Bob gives me the nod, still unsure of my motives. Much later he begins to speak to me about his family and their life as it is now.
Bob is no newcomer. He’s spent a dozen years in the Treasure Valley. I learn they are a part of a Boise subculture of women, men and children who literally have no place to live. They are urban nomads, spending time in the park during the hours it is open and then shuttling to some undisclosed place within the city where they can park on the street or in a vacant lot, undisturbed for the night. They know the places that serve free hot meals and the days they are served. And they know their world is anything but idyllic. Especially when it comes to finding affordable housing.
“We’re looking really hard for a place to live,” Bob tells me. “We have a rent voucher from the housing authority, but can’t find a place to rent.”
Part of that problem is a lack of a credit history and even the fees associated with applying for an apartment.
“If you can’t check all of their boxes on an application form, you can’t find a decent place to live. We need an affordable place soon, very soon.” He emphasizes the immediacy by carefully patting Sarah’s protruding stomach.
“Our baby’s due in a month,” Sarah explains with an air of resignation, rather than hope. “We can’t have a newborn baby live in our van.”
Bob says he knows that having a roof over their heads will also be the key that unlocks opportunities for steady work. Right now he finds day labor jobs on Craigslist.
I suggest that there are homeless shelters that could provide them better shelter in the coming cold days, but Sarah finds the idea far from the perfect solution.
“We did go to one of the local shelters and stayed for a while but it was a terrible experience,” she tells me. “We ended up with bed bugs and they force you to leave and to stay out all day.” From her comments, it’s evident that even on the frontiers of poverty, people still want some control over their lives.
As are many of the issues facing the homeless today, there is no linear solution between needs and providing for those needs. Some of the convolutions are economic, some societal and others, self-created.
“I am an ex-felon,” Bob tells me. “I was young and wild and got into a bad fight and ended up going to prison for five years. I have a criminal record as a violent felon that makes getting a job hard. I was 30 then. Today I am in my 40s, with a wife and a child. I’d never lay a hand on another human being to hurt them as long as I live.”
He explains to me the difficulties of re-entering society with a criminal past, how potential employers and landlords focus on his past, rather than who he is today.
Our discussion is interrupted by little Emma. She is vying for her father’s attention. He surrenders to her needs with a simple sentence. “I gotta go now, my baby needs me.”
I shoot a few more frames without enthusiasm. Nothing I can photograph can capture my feelings at the moment. I say good-bye and try to put the little family behind me by shooting more dog images, but it is futile. I return to my car and see the three of them on a blanket in the park. If I erase the images of the crowded van and the knowledge I have of them as people, it would be easy to mistake them for just another family in the park on a crisp, sunny fall Saturday afternoon. But I know better.
I know that they soon will pack up their shabby belongings and move to a place where hopefully they can spend the night in safety. That their tomorrow will be like their yesterday, an endless search for the most essential of things most Americans take for granted.
And that within a month, a new child will arrive to enter the vortex of poverty that surrounds Bob, Sarah and Emma and an estimated 2,000 other homeless people in Idaho.
Note: The author was unable to get an update on this family, their whereabouts, the birth of the second child, or if their situation has improved.