Photographers Document Life During Displacement
In Dupont Circle, the roots of a large tree are pushing the sidewalk in front of it up. People walk by, often in a hurry, and trip over the raised cement. But if they look down in time “Step Up” has been painted directly in front of the sidewalk’s split.
Robin, a currently unhoused veteran, painted the warning a few months ago after watching numerous people trip and fall onto the sidewalk.
“That tree has no more room to grow, so its roots are pushing up the sidewalk… Starbucks doesn’t do anything and the city doesn’t do anything [about the sidewalk],” Robin said in an interview with Street Sense. “I kept seeing people trip and I got mad. So I painted.”
Sidewalks aren’t Robin’s only artistic medium, he is an avid painter and plays both the guitar and harmonica. He started his own company, Potomac Rock Art, named after the rocks he found by the Potomac River. Robin hand-paints each rock and sells them outside in the Dupont area.
“When people buy the ‘underdog rock’ or the one I didn’t think anyone would buy, it gives me courage,” Robin said.
Robin was born in Paris, France. His father worked for the State Department and he grew up traveling the world and moving frequently with his family. Robin speaks multiple languages, including: Arabic, English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. As an adult, he joined the army and was in the 82nd Airborne Division. He remained in the 82nd Airborne for four years and then served active duty in the reserves for seven years. Robin’s first deployment was to Panama. He later went to Bosnia and Iraq. He said his art is only inspired by his travels before and after joining the military. Everything during his deployments “was too intense.”
Between deployments, Robin relocated to California and studied computer programming. He later moved to France, where his efficiency in multiple languages helped land him a job with EuroDisney managing the parades. He then continued to travel throughout Europe and eventually experienced homelessness in Spain. Robin said experiencing homeless in Spain was “rough, but not like being urban homeless.” He has been in the District for the last three years, first in Georgetown and now in Dupont.
Robin met Mark Thomas, a recent graduate of Catholic University, about a year and a half ago. Thomas majored in Studio Art and was required to complete a final senior project. He chose to photograph the hands of people who experience homelessness to show the physical ramifications of homelessness.
Thomas spent the next four months offering the people he met on the streets warm clothing and food before asking if he could photograph their hands. Over time, Thomas decided to offer disposable cameras to the people he met. He would then collect the film and have it developed. Thomas brought each photographer his or her photos to title them and approve which ones would be for public view. He called his work “District Displaced.”
“I was trying to think of a unique way, because so many people through photography have engaged [the homeless] population,” Thomas said in an interview with Street Sense.
When they met last spring, Robin decided to accept Thomas’ offer to take photos. Robin and Thomas have remained in contact ever since, even though Thomas’ project initially ended after the exhibition of his work.
“I mounted the exhibition [In April] and then I kind of left it alone because I had just graduated. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do,” Thomas said. “I was looking in other places for what I should maybe try to do, but then I kind of realized: ‘why not just invest in something I already thought of doing?’”
Thomas, now a freelance photographer, decided to revitalize his project about two months ago. He still focuses first on outreach, trying to engage with those experiencing homelessness in a way that respects their needs and well. He packs his car with warm clothing, food, and cameras and drives throughout D.C to distribute it.
“I drive around and the back of my car is filled with these tubs of cold weather clothing donations. Before they even think about taking pictures or being engaged in any way creatively, they’re left tangibly in a better way,” Thomas said.
He originally self-funded District Displaced, paying out of pocket to buy cameras and develop film. A.J Glover, who manages District Camera, became “more and more interested” in the project as he developed increasing amounts of the contributors’ film.
“I work here, I can get a discount, so I can help [District Displaced] go further. I work with a lot of artists, especially artists our age, and we try to support each other,” Glover said in an interview with Street Sense.
“I look up to [Thomas], I really respect what he’s doing. We’re coming together to try and do things.”
Thomas’ friend Jabari Johnson also got involved when Thomas revitalized his project. He frequently accompanies Thomas on outreach trips.
“You know we’re in D.C., we’re in the most powerful city in the world. Right now if you look at the state of the city and the transition that it’s going through, it is lovely and it’s nice to see nice new things around here. But I also think that we need to take time to not only focus on the haves and make sure they have amenities, but focus on making sure the have-nots have their necessities,” Johnson said in an interview with Street Sense during D.C.’s Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day vigil.
Johnson said his father exposed him to poverty in the District starting at the age of five. The conversations he and his father shared shaped his life and inspired him to continue to volunteer and participate in outreach.
“A big part of why I like District Displaced is it allows us to bring a narrative about homelessness told by the homeless. I know the mission of District Displaced is to spark the conversation, humanize the conversation, and make people talk, and to shine a new light on this epidemic,” Johnson said.
Having individuals who experience homelessness take control of their narrative is extremely important to Thomas. He still makes sure any photos he makes public have been chosen and titled by the photographer. Once approved and titled, Thomas posts the photos to the District Displaced website, DistrictDisplaced.com.
“I’ve found that so many individuals who are homeless create creatively under different umbrella organizations and then don’t tangibly get anything for what they create. I think that that is not appropriate,” Thomas said. “So everything we do, we try to be very transparent in a way not to manipulate people that are already, unfortunately, being manipulated by the system or other people. They don’t need any more people taking advantage of them, if anything they need a lot less.”
Robin remains District Displaced’s longest contributor and he is also Thomas’ closest friend. Thomas is a consistent presence in Robin’s weekly life, although the two have no other form of communication besides their near-daily meetings. Robin does have a phone that was gifted to him by a GW student, but he cannot text or make phone calls. He instead uses it to listen to Pandora via Wi-Fi. Lately, he’s been listening to the Gaelic folk music station.
Robin enjoys photographing sunrises, sunsets, gardens, Victorian houses, and the ocean. He also frequently photographs the Dupont circle underpass, which he calls the “Grand Canyon.” Robin works at his own pace, filling up a roll of film whenever he is inspired. If he has filled up a roll of film by the time Thomas sees him next, he has a new camera ready for Robin to use.
“[District Displaced is] all about showing that the homeless are talented,” Robin said.
For a while, Robin did a photo series using his bike that he called “Huffy.” Each photo was a different backdrop, but Huffy was the consistent center of the frame. Unfortunately, those photos and Huffy were stolen on the streets. Robin says that happens frequently. He has lost more photos and cameras from Mark, eleven phones, six guitars, and numerous harmonicas.
Because Robin stays on the same block in Dupont most days, local business people and residents often check in with him or bring him food. Almost two months ago, a man passing by saw Robin playing a broken guitar. A few days later, the same man came back with a new guitar for Robin. Robin says he now keeps his guitar with Pathways to Housing DC (Pathways) to prevent it from being stolen. An artist who recently saw Robin painting gave him one of his canvases to use as an easel. During his interview with Street Sense, a taxi driver delivered a box of Krispy Kreme donuts to Robin and Mark.
“Good things are happening to me, but it’s intermingled with so much bad,” Robin said, throwing a bag of crackers out for the pigeons, “Everywhere I grew up there were pigeons, in Morocco, in Spain…”
During his interview with Street Sense, John, a Dupont local, stopped to check in with Robin and inquired about any updates in his housing status. Robin said he didn’t have any news.
Robin has tried to receive housing before, but says he’s fallen through the cracks from various services over the past two years. He’s completed rehabilitation programs for substance abuse in the past, but doesn’t want to return to another center. He says he just wants a safe place to live.
A few months ago, Robin and Thomas said they were approached by a woman who identified herself as a Pathways employee. She offered to take Robin to visit local service provider Veterans on the Rise. Robin did not want to leave his belongings on short notice and asked to reschedule their meeting to the following afternoon at 12:30pm. The next day, Thomas arrived to watch over Robin’s belongings, but both men said the woman never came back.
Due to the organization’s confidentiality policies, Pathways could not confirm to Street Sense whether or not Robin is their client. Christine Elwell, Outreach Director at Pathways, explained in an email to Street Sense that Pathways outreach members “walk the neighborhood several times a day” to familiarize themselves with those in the area and their needs, but it can be difficult to arrange appointments.
“People who experience homelessness often have difficulty keeping track of information and appointments, in part because they are very focused on meeting basic needs (food, shelter, clothing)…Individuals often lack access to transportation as well as the flexibility to take care of things around times that are most convenient for them (such as in between meal programs or shower times.)” Elwell said.
Individuals experiencing homelessness can ask a Business Improvement District Ambassador or SAM (Safety/Hospitality and Maintenance), or another service provider, to contact Pathways on their behalf.
Pathways receives referrals “every day” from concerned citizens, according to Elwell. Referrals can result in being able to locate someone new who is in need, or in team members checking in on a client already in their system.
For Thomas, Robin’s continued lack of housing is frustrating, especially as the District had aimed to end veteran homelessness by the New Year. But Thomas tries to channel frustration he feels into District Displaced.
“You can take those bad emotions and utilize them to do something positive instead of just ignoring the problem. Because it’s not going to go away if people don’t do anything.” Thomas said.
When asked what he needs and wants out of life, Robin replied: “You know, no one really ever asks me that. They come up and say ‘Do you want this hat? Or this food?’ I would want a workshop, a place to work. I’d open up a coffee shop where people could bring their animals, with some bird houses and a Japanese garden. I’d still do rocks. I’d still make sidewalk art.”
District Displaced will host an exhibition of each contributor’s hand selected work on January 29th at the White Room DC (1240 9th Street NW) from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, but Thomas encourages cold weather clothing donations or monetary donations towards the project.