There are people who, for many reasons or circumstances, become invisible to most of us. There are areas of each community that house people, in this case Houston’s Fifth Ward area, existing at a level that we don’t really want to see. Yet, this is an affliction in all societies, everywhere. Despite an unsightly marginalized existence, these are real people. Society tends to objectify and dehumanize people at society’s margins; even though this is a layer within all of our lives. These people must be seen, despite our own fear, guilt, loathing, disgust and desire to avoid. In looking at these images, we find, whatever the reason, the layers in a community are not all pleasing ones that invoke the beautiful illusion that we call life. There are Fifth Wards everywhere.
I found the first person that I photographed in the series while I was in this neighborhood looking for bolts and nuts from a distributor for a personal music audiophile project, not a photographic project. This person was chosen because she appeared to be an interesting person. But what does that mean? I have a fundamental interest in social issues, rooted in my past history in Russian and coming to the US. And, I always have my camera equipment at the ready with me. When I approached this first person and asked to photograph her, as with many of the others, the first question from her was – “Why? ... Are you police?” Her street name was “Michelle”. As with others, when you ask their name, you get “You can call me....”. A street name is most likely unrelated to their real or given name. She presented herself as a “hooker” who sees 3-4 “customers” or “clients” a day. Many of the girls I met used the same terms in referring to the people they “work” with on the street. She said she was 42 or 43 years old with two kids and divorced. She does not know where the kids are, as they ran away years ago. She has no regular means of support; surviving day by day, with no place to stay, couch surfing every night with different people, or on the street. So, “Michelle” appears to be one of the city’s “homeless”. Not unlike others in this neighborhood, she does not use social services. To receive social help you have to see caseworkers, and be interrogated in a series of regular meetings as to your progress in looking for work, etc..... But these folks are not ones that can keep a regular schedule: they are in jail or drunk, or have mental issues. She is a drug user. She has been in Jail. “Michelle” is originally from Louisiana and had moved to Houston about 25 years ago, wanting to be a nurse. Michelle has health issues, as many of these folks do... In her case, she has difficulty eating and has a “feeding tube” into her stomach”. The church she is standing by is an abandoned church on a busy street, where she is looking for customers. None of the people I photographed were churchgoers for religious reasons, but then again, religion rarely came up in conversation. She was murdered the morning of November 19 as reported by Channel 11 News. “Michele” was found in an abandoned lot completely naked except for shoes, with multiple knife wounds and her throat slit. According to Channel 11 news, it was not the first time a girl has been found in this neighborhood like that.
The first image and this image are connected. “Michelle” introduced me to this couple, and to others in the neighborhood. The man and the woman are unrelated and not married. The woman’s name is “Melissa”. She calls him her boyfriend and they live together, but he is not a provider. “Melissa” has a job working 20 or so hours a week and receives food stamps. They are both from Texas. She claims she is “religious” and goes to church. But, she does work as a “Hooker” when she needs some money. Like others, she has been in jail, which, actually is where “Melissa” and “Michelle” met. But, per Melissa she is not a “hooker” because she only does it when she has needs. For her, its not a “profession”. She does not view it as a “profession” because she does not do it regularly. Woman who do it “as needed” do not consider themselves “hookers”. Ironically, she was looking for customers on the same corner as the church where she attends. So if she needs $30, “Melissa” goes to the street as a means of surviving, but not as “hooking”. Her boyfriend knows all of this, but it’s just how life is for them. She served time in jail, more than once. But in the fifth ward many of these folks have been in jail, more than once. From my conversations, they mainly end up in jail for prostitution or drug possession. It’s no surprise that many of these people do not have a driver’s license or other forms of proper identification. Many have an “offender” ID. That is an ID issued by some authority with “Offender” spread across the card. People who have spent time in jail tend to not care, but will talk because they feel they are already in a public record. Those not in jail are more reticent to talk because they feel “below the radar”. He is interesting because of what he not say. One of the things he did not do was give me his name. Men tended to be more cautious than the women. He dodged most of the questions asked of him. The image is taken next the building where they rent an apartment. As many homes in the area, the house is not well maintained. The rent is paid irregularly to the “landlord”, and they do not abide by any formal rules like many people who would normally pay rent regularly, or face eviction. They frequently take in others on the street as an additional source of income. There are no valuables in the house. These folks do not have such things that can be stolen. So there is a flow of known and unknown tenants of convenience for these two to enable them to live in this apartment.
The owner of the property pays “Guy” $20 a day to live on the property in a truck box that was removed from the chassis with no running water and an old style out-house for a bathroom. There are several abandoned boxes around. In a former life he was a truck driver, married with a son. Now divorced, his wife ran away with another man, and took his son and all his belongings. After a law suit by the wife, he was left destitute. But this is his side of the story. He is not originally from Houston, but came here 15 years ago from Colorado. Unable to find employment, he was homeless for 2-3 years. Afraid to forget about his son, he has a tattoo with his son’s name, birthdate and social security number. Where one of us might carry a photograph in a wallet, he makes his form remembrance much more permanent and personal.
“Shorty” is 26 years old with 3 children. Like many woman on the street, she is in and out of jail for prostitution and drug use. Unlike others that perhaps have been in jail 2 or 3 times, she’s been there 8 times in her 26 years. She says fifty dollars of cocaine lasts her a week. She has looked for a “pimp”, but with no transportation, she needs a pimp with a car, so she is still looking for a suitable agent. Where we might expect everyone to have “hope”, she feels “low”. “Shorty” feels there is no hope for her life at all. Her kids are cared for by a mother that lives on welfare, food stamps and who has advanced stage diabetes. She lives on the street. She was thrown out of her mother’s house for a variety of reasons at which we can only guess. When first photographed over a year ago, she was very skinny, with an observable weight gain now of 60 pounds from her last time in jail, and the loss of several teeth.
“Nicole” is not like the others. At 18 years old, she is full of hope with a positive attitude. All her “troubles” are temporary and she sees a bright future. She does not live with her parents. She is in an apartment with other girls, making money as a prostitute. But, she wants to earn money to go back to school to learn a skill and get a job. Her boyfriend is fine with her earning money as a prostitute, because she supports him, even though they don’t live together.
About 36 years old, she is sitting and waiting for a “john”, in front of abandoned apartments. Her “home” is, in her own words, a “whorehouse” on the next street which is a two story wooden quadruplex in extremely run down shape. Although she says she is not on government aid, she does use a medial truck that comes through the neighborhood to take blood and test for Aids. The truck also gives them condoms and other materials for safer sex. As the cars pass by, she waves and makes an invitation move. The couch on the street is her office for conducting a very old business.
It was a rainy day when I met Patrick on a street called “New York”. Patrick is wearing the garb of the street for the rain – plastic bags tied over the shoulder, and on one foot. The other foot is an orthopedic shoe found in a dumpster. He has no home. His children abandoned him, and he does not know where they are. His wife died, but he could not recall when. He had not eaten that a day, nor the prior day. It all depends on the generosity of strangers that might give him money. He was oblivious to my photographing him, until I walked up and spoke to him. I don’t think he was ignoring me. It seems that he was just unaware of what was around him, but just walking, looking straight ahead, and not glancing to the left or right, as we might, always checking our surrounding. He just walked on. Oblivious of his surroundings, I watched as he crossed the street without any regard for the traffic, or signals.
Unlike the others, I believe her name to really be Susan. An “Opportunist”, but not a prostitute, but more looking for things to re-sell or a house to clean. Unlike the others, she asked if I had a job for her, like cleaning, when I approached her. Unlike the others, she did not solicit me. Unlike the others, she is married and lives with her husband, who is handicapped and not working. Unlike the others, she says they have a truck, albeit very old. When they have money for gas, she drives around neighborhoods looking for things to re-sell or to sell to junk metal dealers. She is sitting by the back of an old moving truck bed in an abandoned lot, with burned out homes. At this moment, she is doing what others do when they have nothing to do. She is just sitting, and letting time, and life, just continue on.
Princess is also different from the others. She has an office job, she says. Albeit part-time, it’s an everyday job. Princess says she “works” on the street for supplemental income, working in front of another abandoned apartment. She has a son, about two years old. Her son is from the previous boyfriend . The tattoo on her arm is the name of her son and her old boyfriend. She has a new boy friend, that also is accepting of her “supplemental” activities, and does not mind the tattoo referencing the prior boyfriend. Princess believes that she is in fact “better” than others in this neighborhood, and carries herself in a royal fashion. She stands when she works the street. She does not want to sit on a dirty couch, like the others. While I don’t’ know what the going rate would be, she said she charged more than the others.