'My Town' exhibit features homeless photographers' views




Homelessness isn’t confined to large cities. The neediest among us don’t all spend their days begging for money on street corners or by interstate overpasses. They are not all drug addicts or mentally ill. It is anonymous, but everywhere.

But perhaps most important, they are not disposable people. They have value, intelligence and creativity. Given the chance, they have something to say.

Offering that opportunity is the purpose behind an initiative called “My Town: Art From Our Homeless Neighbors.” It’s an initiative sponsored by the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church and taking place in Lakeland. It seeks to show homelessness from the perspective of those who live it.

Modeled after a project in London, the "My Town: Art From Our Homeless Neighbors" project in Lakeland was designed to show the perspective of those who are homeless.

“Homelessness doesn’t mean hopelessness,” said Sharon Austin, the conference director of Connectional Ministries. “It doesn’t mean never-ending despair. For years, people thought of this as a scourge of urban areas, but homelessness is no respecter of age, race, ethnicity, culture or location.”

The idea for this was spawned by Gretchen Hastings, the conference managing director of Connectional Relations, and her team when they saw a similar project in London. The concept has spread to other cities as well, but the aim is the same: Give the homeless a chance to bring the viewer into their world.

“She brought the project to us, and this made sense from the start,” Lighthouse Ministries President and CEO Steve Turbeville said. “She networked and got the mayor involved, the police chief and many others. We had a little concern about participation and what the expectations would be, but it was a chance for the homeless to show what their life is like and how they see us.”

The project sponsors include the Florida United Methodist Foundation, Lighthouse Ministries, First United Methodist Church, Lakeland, Tampa’s Bob Baggett Photography, Inc. and local photographers Larissa Ensign (Portrait by Larissa) and Robin Phillips (Phillips Photographers).

In March, the team distributed 32 Fujifilm disposable cameras to persons affected by homelessness and asked them to come back with photographs of how they view their town.

From more than 500 images, judges—including local officials and law enforcement— chose 20 that will be presented to the community. The opening exhibit is May 5 from 1-3 p.m. at First UMC in Lakeland.

After fighting a 10-year addiction to drugs, serving jail time and left alone on the streets, Lighthouse Ministries former resident Nick Cassista now views the world differently. Today he is married, has a job, a home and a little girl, shown here.

“This has given me a chance to get insight into our community,” Lakeland Police Chief Larry Giddens said. “I was impressed by the photography, but it also forced me to think about this issue. Homelessness is a challenge for everyone. It’s a Central Florida challenge. And it’s a human challenge.

"Think about it. When you see a homeless person, do you wonder where they sleep at night? Where do they go to use the restroom? Where do they eat? Do they eat? This project might be an opportunity for some of the participants to get some positive comments. It may tell them, ‘I can do more. I have challenges, but I have a chance. I am worth something.’”

Nick Cassista knows the truth of that better than most. He was homeless, addicted and alone. His father was never in the picture, and his mother died in a house fire when he was 18.

“I started to drink to numb the pain,” he said. “I started using whatever drugs I could. I couldn’t handle it. I wound up in jail, and I was sleeping outside.”

That went on for about 10 years. It nearly came to a tragic end after his best friend from high school shot himself in the head.

“I went on a bender that should have killed me,” he said. “I knew then I had to do something with my life or I was going to end up in a casket.”

He reached out to Lighthouse Ministries in Lakeland. He got treatment that helped get his life in order. He got a job, and through a Christian online dating site, he met Jessica. Like him, she used to be homeless.

They were soon married and now own a home and have a daughter. He photographed her as part of the “My Town” project. She was holding a sign that thanked Jesus for helping her mother and father in their time of greatest need.

“People forget that these are everyday people,” Turbeville said. “They are your brother, sister. They are your aunt, your uncle. They didn’t choose to be homeless.”

The project gives them a chance to share what life is like in their world.

“Some of them were automatically excited because they felt this was a voice for them,” Lighthouse Director of Development Galinda Fleming said.

In March, the team distributed 32 Fujifilm disposable cameras to persons affected by homelessness. There were more than 500 images taken by those who participated over five days.

Even in this time of unprecedented wealth and materialism, the need for Christians to reach out has never been greater.

“Often people are lumped together and referred to as a group of people that we need less,” Austin said. “But our brothers and sisters who are homeless now may have led ordinary lives before an event or a series of small events led them to this situation.

“These photographs have captured in some cases the ordinariness of lives that we frequently rush by. These are the images that we would never have taken out our expensive smart phones to capture.”

There was one image in particular that struck her. It was a simple photo of a No Trespassing sign.

“I wonder how that will be received in a community here that considers itself pretty friendly,” Austin said. “What does that sign tell someone who is homeless? We’re open, but not for you.

“That’s the value in this, to make people think. Poverty is not a sin. Homelessness is not a sin. The people who took these pictures are our neighbors. They have a story to tell. We should listen.”

--Joe Henderson is a freelance writer based in Brandon

Editor’s note: My Town volunteer judges included Lakeland Mayor Howard Wiggs; Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin, Florida Conference; Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd; Lakeland Police Chief Larry Giddens; Dr. Brenda Reddout, Executive Director Talbot House Ministries; Polk County Tax Collector Joe Tedder; Robin Phillips, Phillips Photographers; Larissa Ensign, Portrait By Larissa; Lakeland City Commissioner Phillip Walker; Adam Schultz, www.schultz-media.net, and Rev. Armando Rodriguez, First UMC Bartow.


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