The song came gushing out like an open hydrant on a hot summer day, but for Natalie Cole, it was a complicated kind of high. Minutes before she heard her breakthrough hit, “This Will Be,” on the radio for the first time in 1975, she had scored a heroin fix and was tripping down 113th Street in Harlem. Drugs were a recent mainstay; she started using heavily in college, during the substance-fueled psychedelic era (she still managed to get her degree, in psychology). Music, meanwhile, was her birthright — after all, she was the daughter of Nat King Cole, one of the most beloved singers of the 20th century. Growing up in the exclusive Hancock Park section of Los Angeles, she could wander into the living room and find the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Sinatra gathered round the family piano. Now that she had a big hit of her own, fame was proving to be a stronger stimulant. She kicked heroin, married one of her producers, had a son, had more hits, appeared on “The Tonight Show.”
He gave each homeless person he met a white board and a marker and asked a question:
“If you could say something about yourself to anybody, what would it be?”
Some wanted nothing to do with the burly photographer who stood before them. But many others grasped the opportunity and the words flowed. They wrote in bold print or in fancy cursive, in short phrases or in one or two sentences.
“I miss cooking for my five kids. I want my family back!” wrote Jennafer Foss on a cool, cloudy day at the beach.
“I make your coffee & sleep on the sidewalk,” a young Cory Turner scrawled.
“I just want to stay alive,” printed Kevin Anderson, as he lay on a piece of cardboard.
For Hans Gutknecht, a veteran photojournalist with the Los Angeles Daily News, his 30-year career has taken him far and wide to capture images of the city’ most rich and famous. But it was the words scrawled by homeless people he met on the streets that left Gutknecht with a lasting impression. In an image-obsessed world, Gutknecht used a simple white board, a marker and a question to give homeless people a voice.
“One of the things that a lot of people I talked to spoke about was being judged and being characterized and looked at in generalities like they’re just bums or drug addicts,” Gutknecht said of the 50 men and women he photographed and interviewed over the course of more than a year.
VIEW THE PROJECT: See and hear from LA’s homeless community in their own words
“For a lot, it hurt them,” he noted “I think that a lot of them were like: give me a chance. Don’t judge me.”
Gutknecht found people who lived in makeshift encampments, slept in their RVs or stood outside 7-Eleven stores. He especially sought people outside of downtown’s Skid Row, known as the epicenter of Los Angeles’ homeless crisis.
“If you were sitting on the sidewalk, and your life was in disarray, how nice would it be if someone said: ‘How are you?’. – Hans Gutknecht, L.A. Daily News photographer
At a daily luncheon in Sun Valley offered by Hope of the Valley, Gutknecht met an elderly man named Popeye whose voice was gravelly and his words difficult to understand. But on a white board, Popeye’s words were loud and clear. “I love everyone.”
In a doorway on Hollywood Boulevard, sat Brian Maricle, who wrote: “Life is stranger than fiction.”
“Some of us are so distraught and we don’t really know what to do with our lives,” Maricle told Gutknecht. “Some people I’ve met are so distressed, they start to do drugs because of it.”
Gutknecht said he’s photographed homeless people since the 1990s, and has seen the number of people sleeping on the streets rise.
“Homelessness is worse than I’ve ever seen it,” he said. “Places where you wouldn’t see homeless before, they’re there now.”
Homelessness surged across Los Angeles County’s neighborhoods and suburbs this year compared with 2016, with more than 58,000 people sleeping on sidewalks, in their cars, or along the Los Angeles River, according to results of a count taken in January.
Some progress has been made to focus on building more affordable housing. In March, Los Angeles County voters approved Measure H and it is projected to raise $355 million a year for 10 years to help homeless people transition into planned affordable housing, among other initiatives. The funding is to go hand-in-hand with the city of Los Angeles’ efforts to build 10,000 new homes using funds under another voter-approved measure that generates money through a parcel tax.
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The focus on helping homeless people is increasing, said Gary Blasi, a retired UCLA law professor who has studied and litigated homeless issues for decades. He said Gutknecht’s photo essay forces the public to make eye contact with homeless people, to recognize them “as full human beings with thoughts and feelings.”
“More people are paying attention to the massive amount of homelessness in Los Angeles, which is a first step,” Blasi said. “But only the first step. A lot of resources and energy are being spent on moving homeless people around that would be better spent on helping them out of homelessness. But that requires real commitment, over a period of time.”
Rents for a single room in LA County have gone up 92 percent in the past six years, Blasi noted.
“The housing shortage and skyrocketing rents are driving homelessness in L.A.,” Blasi added. “Homelessness will continue to rise at double-digit rates until we get serious about the housing shortage and the public finance reforms necessary to get the resources to do that.”
Gutknecht said the people in his photo essay mentioned high rents repeatedly. Many are on waiting lists for affordable housing. But even if every homeless person could be housed, the social service system is overwhelmed, Gutknecht found, and many people have complex problems that may hinder their success.
“A lot of people struggle with their drug addiction problems,” Gutknecht said. “Obviously if they could choose a normal life, they would, but they can’t.”
Deborah Land, for example, was nearly killed by a boyfriend 20 years ago with a broken champagne bottle he smashed on her head. Her face was so disfigured that she thought of herself as “the elephant woman.” Her life spiraled. She found heroin and lost her daughter.
Twenty years later, heroin still owns her.
“I just want to change,” she told Gutknecht. “The hardest thing is to start. I’ve seen miracles happen in the (drug treatment) programs. I just don’t feel like I deserve it.”
Robert Marks has been homeless since he was 15 years old. On the white board, Marks wrote: “Struggle Breeds Greatness.”
Marks saw his dad murder his mom, and after that day “nothing’s ever been right,” Marks, 37, told Gutknecht. “It’s affected me to the point where I don’t know how to love my family right.”
“When this is what you see and this is your environment in your formative years, how can your sense of normalcy be like everyone else’s?” Gutknecht said. “How does he pull himself up from a situation? He never really had a chance.”
While their stories and circumstances are in some cases dire, Gutknecht also noted hope among those he met.
“The ones that are hopeful, and there are a lot, they find it through spirituality or kindness that people show them,” Gutknecht said. “There are a lot of groups out there helping. Many homeless people believe God has given them purpose.”
Gutknecht said he undertook this project because he wanted the public to know that there’s a story behind the worn cardboard signs homeless people fly on off-ramps or in front of markets, asking for extra change.
“You don’t have to give them money or open your house to them,” Gutknecht said. Sometimes, a simple question will do, he added.
“If you were sitting on the sidewalk, and your life was in disarray, how nice would it be if someone said: ‘How are you?’.
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