During the month of January 2014, every night 578,424 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States. That same month, every night there were 53,615 people in New York City shelters alone, and by November, the number had climbed to 60,352. Undoubtedly, homelessness is a major problem, but by reducing the issue to statistics and figures, we easily forget the subjects of homelessness: the people themselves.
In an effort to remind people of the human element of homelessness, photographer Mikaël Theimer (who goes by Mkl) launched Humans of the Street. The series is aimed at humanizing the homeless people of Montreal and providing interested parties with the opportunity to learn more about them and even connect with or help them.
The series started as a sub-project of Portraits of Montreal, a Humans of New York-inspired photo project Theimer was working on to meet and photograph random people. But when he eventually included a photo of a homeless man with a caption about being "afraid the summer heat waves would kill him, because he has asthma," interest quickly grew. At one point, one of the Facebook page's "fans" posted a photo of her posing with the homeless man after she brought him a box of inhalers.
"We realized posting these people's stories online could have impacts in the real world," Theimer told Mic via email. "So my girlfriend and I — who had been talking about doing something around homelessness for a while — decided to create Humans of the Street."
At first, the project followed the Portraits of Montreal/Humans of New York framework of a striking photo and a quote ranging from one line to a couple paragraphs.
After the success of the inhaler post, Theimer realized he found a tool for actionable change. Rather than just clicking "like" or engaging in hashtag activism, Theimer began to include more details about his photo's subjects and what they might need.
"I think people want to help, but they don't know how to," Theimer said. "In fact, more than just help, I think they want to connect with those people. Giving a dollar doesn't cut it, it doesn't feel like it's of much help. Whereas if you know the guy likes his coffee with two creams and three sugars, when you bring that to him, a connection is possible. And that shines a light on the day of both parties."
The deeper into the project Theimer got, the deeper the stories he published. Accompanying the below photos of David and his dog Diamond, Theimer posted a lengthy description — in English and French, like all his posts — describing their situation and listing things like David's pant size, long-terms needs and even lunch preference.
By telling his subjects' stories and describing their needs, rather than just asking for a check, Theimer's project has found great success. An Indiegogo campaign raised over $6,000 (CAD) in donations for David and Diamond. They're now living in an apartment, and David has a job at an autobody shop.
It's this humanization that's made Humans of the Street so powerful and successful. It's easy to pass by someone sitting on the street and clump them into the general population of "homeless people," but when you stop and learn about them, as Theimer and his photo project have aimed to do, the thinking shifts from looking at the monolith of "homelessness" to seeing each person as an individual and recognizing that they're more than just a "homeless person."
"This is very important to us," Theimer says. "This is the big reason why we're doing this: We want to make the first step between everyday people and homeless people, we want to break the ice, make them feel like friends. Because then how can we stand to leave our friends in such a living hell?"
Theimer said most passers-by have the same negative preconceived notions about homeless people: "'It's his fault if he's there.' Or 'He'll just drink the money away.' Or 'I can't approach him, he might be aggressive.'"
But as Mic's Zeeshan Aleem wrote, these kind longstanding myths are problematic but common:
"A number of inappropriate comments are around the issue of whether homeless people work. Contrary to popular opinion, many homeless people work. A 2002 study by the Urban Institute showed that about 45% of homeless adults had worked in the past month. Many who experience homelessness were previously living paycheck to paycheck for a long period of time in cities that have few affordable housing options, and have been pushed into the streets by one crisis too many. Once you become homeless, it's extremely difficult to maintain the sanitation and order in your life required to keep a job."
Even those who are good intentioned often find themselves floating in a sea of misinformation. "The biggest misconception people have is that they can't do anything about it," Theimer said. "Sure one can't change a homeless guy's life on their own, but if we all acted concerned, instead of turning a blind eye on the problem, things would be different."
Though a myriad of national and international organizations work tirelessly to fight homelessness, as Theimer's project has shown, the best start is a simple one.
"Next time you walk by that homeless guy you see every day on your way to work, stop and say hi. You don't have to give him anything but a smile and a bit of your time. Connect. You'll be surprised how many misconceptions will be torn apart in five minutes spent with that guy."
In one case, Theimer documented how a woman had started a relationship with a young homeless man, helping him and his dog get back on their feet.
This kind of connection, Theimer believes, is what will ultimately help the countless homeless people who've been struggling with various problems, some of them for their entire lives. With this mentality, we can hopefully stop thinking of these people as homeless, but as humans — as humans of the street.
"Friends support each other, and if homeless people felt supported by common citizens, they'd be more likely to fight with everything they have to get their life back in order," Theimer said. "And they'd have help along the way, our help."