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Photo project looks through the eyes of the homeless

By Kimberly Moore

For Weekly Surge

I firmly believed that I didn't need anyone but me...

Look how wrong you can be...

So remember, every picture tells a story don't it?

- from "Every Picture Tells a Story"

by Rod Stewart

In its new digs in the center of Myrtle Beach, Street Reach Ministries carries out the overwhelming task of providing food, clothes and shelter to the estimated thousands of homeless in our area. During a recent visit, inside the building at the corner of 10th Avenue North and Osceola Street, a smiling receptionist fields calls while an older gentleman in tattered flannel and faded jeans sits waiting next to a rack of pamphlets dealing with alcohol and drug recovery, overcoming adversity and spirituality ("I Am Father God's Happy Thought'').

Down a hallway, a woman can be heard telling a story - her story, spanning a life of heartache and abuse, of redemption and a new beginning. Down another hallway, an alcove with a TV area and scattered seating sits empty for now. It is mid afternoon and other than the meetings taking place, the shelter sits empty. As the evening progresses, the shelter will fill to capacity.

Lining the hallways are pictures of men and women, animals and children. Some in makeshift camps, tarps stretched out over the branches of trees, cardboard boxes subbing for walls. Some are pictured in parking lots, on street corners, in abandoned buildings. While some of the subjects avert their gaze from the prying eyes of the camera, others stare defiantly at the lens, looking out from their world with a gaze that challenges the onlooker to not look away.

"Looking at Myrtle Beach Through The Eyes of the Homeless'' is a collaborative project of Street Reach Ministries and the American Advertising Federation - Coastal Carolinas chapter, a non-profit organization of local professionals from the fields of advertising, marketing and public relations. Through the support of Sabree Hill Photography and 803 Labs Inc., a process called Photovoice, in which a particular group is given cameras in order to photograph their experiences, was used to capture a way of life that is often ignored or misunderstood. Since 1999, Photovoice has been used for research, education, and as an agent for social change and the development of public policy in countries throughout the world - Afghanistan, Nepal, the Congo, Cambodia, and among refugee groups, street children, HIV/AIDS sufferers. Pioneered by Professor Carolyn Wang from the University of Michigan School of Public Heath and Mary Ann Burris of the Ford Foundation, the idea behind the method is to give the subjects their own voice, and their own way of defining their experience to the onlooker. Through the exhibit at Street Reach, the images caught on camera and the stories behind them seek to dispel stereotypes and myths the public holds about homeless people, as well as draw attention to an increasingly growing problem. The images you see on the cover of this edition of Surge, this page and the following pages are culled from this project and are being presented here with the blessings of AAF-Coastal Carolinas, Sabree Hill Photography and 803 Labs Inc.

The project began last fall, when disposable cameras were passed out to homeless individuals at both the Street Reach shelter and at the Community Assistance Center. Bobby Altman, a photographer with 803 Labs, which did all of the developing of the pictures, says, "The cameras we passed out came back in very sporadically. Out of the 50 we distributed, we ended up getting 10 back." In addition to the pictures from the disposable cameras, Altman and local photographer Sabree Hill set out to capture their own images. "It was pretty difficult getting people to agree to participate. We had been told that many people were in hiding, involved in disputes," says Altman.

Many street people live in makeshift camps set up in the woods. Altman visited several off U.S.

501, near Third Avenue South. "We went to three different locations in that area, and found camps with anywhere from four to eight people living there," says Altman. "I only saw adults, but I was told there were children living there as well."

Hill is an award-winning photojournalist whose work has taken her across the world, capturing images of struggle and survival throughout this country and in such far off places as Romania, Somalia and the United Arab Emirates. As part of this assignment, Hill's quest for photos took her to abandoned buildings, vacant parking garages and makeshift camps throughout the downtown Myrtle Beach area. "The people who are homeless in this area present themselves pretty well - you wouldn't necessarily know they were homeless," says Hill. "In spite of their circumstances, they manage to keep up with themselves and their appearance, blending into the general population." The abundance of motels in the area provides an occasional respite from life on the street. Says Hill, "Many of the people I met were back and forth - one day staying in a motel, the next day back in the woods."

While drugs and alcohol may have played a part in the past, many homeless are trying to break the cycle of addiction, but the odds are against them. "There is a stigma that they all have drug and alcohol problems, but many people I met were in recovery, and actually banned drugs and alcohol in their camps," Hill says, adding, "there are a lot of other reasons a person ends up homeless."

The current economy with low wages and job losses, the unstable housing market, lack of healthcare or insurance - all are contributing factors in the skyrocketing homeless rates. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness's report issued Tuesday, "we anticipate 1.5 million additional homeless people from 2009 to 2010 if nothing is done to both prevent homelessness and re-house those already affected by foreclosure, job loss, etc."

The City of Myrtle Beach conducts a count of the homeless every two years, with the last count in 2007 tallying more than 1,400 people along the Grand Strand without a permanent residence.

The next Homeless Census will be conducted from Jan. 29 through Feb. 12. By all accounts, actual numbers are hard to gauge. The city has been aggressive in its efforts to clear out areas where the homeless live, bulldozing abandoned buildings and leveling forests. But eliminating

the places where homeless people encamp does not mean you are eliminating the problem. "You have to address the issue. You can't just expect it to go away, says Hill. "People see the hotels, the resorts, and have know idea what's going on. Now when I drive through Myrtle Beach, I see it differently."