Edwin has been in remission of Hodgkin’s lymphoma for three years.
Nathan worked for Marvel Comics, but his identity was stolen, and his parents are dead. So, slowly, everything unraveled.
Maria is multilingual. Ryan is a POW. John is a veteran.
These are the names of a few of the homeless Joanna Biondolillo has met and photographed in her dogged campaign to educate the public on the plague of homelessness. Their faces and stories are captured in her photography exhibit, "When I Was a Child." And their stories and solutions for ending homelessness are compiled in a spiral-bound, 67-page booklet that is being sent to every first spouse in the nation this week.
Biondolillo calls the manual, “A Practical Approach to Solving Homelessness in America,” and is quick to credit the homeless men and women across the United States who have contributed to the booklet.
"Not one idea about how to solve homelessness are my ideas,” she says. "And frankly, my ideas don’t count. As far as I can tell, we’re not approaching homelessness in the way the homeless need."
It’s a point she stresses, noting that current solutions are definitely in need of scrutiny and reform.
“(The booklet) shares what programs are not working and why they’re not working, which is important. You can criticize something but explain why it isn’t working."
Biondolillo and I sit together for an hour and half and she produces statistics and census numbers on demand (“the numbers are in my head”), provides photocopies of newspaper articles, and tells me the names and stories of every person she has profiled in her exhibit, more than 100 faces. (No children are documented in the exhibit, though she was offered to photograph them.)
She returns time and again to the educational aspect of her exhibit.
“The exhibit isn’t just portraits and stories of these people,” she says. "It’s also the educational pieces that people walk away understanding. These are the numbers, and these are their stories.”
Biondolillo’s story began almost 30 years ago after receiving a Minolta 370X camera for Christmas from a friend. Even though she wasn’t a photographer.
“He said, 'You’re going to be really good at this. You’re going to make a really great photographer.' "
So, she began her professional career doing portrait work in Austin, Texas, but was disheartened by the touch-up culture of digital.
“Digital came out and everyone wanted to look like something they weren’t,” she says. "I was not going to sit at a computer and alter reality.”
Now Biondolillo works in landscape and travel photography, selling prints at 40 to 50 art shows a year. Five years ago, she began photo documentary work and was spurred to document homelessness after witnessing an interview during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“The interviewee was discussing health care and said, 'We’re not going to let people die in the streets.' And I thought, 'We already have hundreds of thousands living and dying on the streets.’ So, I pulled a point-in-time census, studied it for two months and in January, I got on a plane and started crisscrossing the country.”
Biondolillo’s travels, all self-funded, have taken her to Miami, Seattle, New York, Las Vegas and several points in between. And the education she’s received on the ground is worth more than her two graduate degrees.
"People asked if I was getting paid, and I said, ‘You bet.’ ” Although not monetarily, of course.
What she has discovered is that homelessness does not have a quick solution. But there is a solution. And one of the first steps is changing our perception of who the homeless are, ditching preconceived notions of why they’re homeless.
“You and I are as vulnerable as the next person (to homelessness). If we don’t dispel the notion that these people are not worthy, we aren’t going to gain the support to address the issue properly."
In her photos, she captures the spirit, the faces and the stories of the homeless in a way that makes their humanity, their hope, shine through.
“Because the spirit isn’t dead,” she says. "When you talk to them and share with them and tell them (they’re) worthwhile, hope comes through.”
The project, however, has been difficult in gaining traction at times. Homelessness is not an easy or exciting subject to witness. And Biondolillo is searching for venues and galleries that are willing to confront the issue rather than keeping it “out of sight, out of mind.”
She spends much of her time talking and writing to local and federal government agencies, many of which don’t fully understand the issue.
The journey hasn’t been easy but it’s necessary.
"No matter where I was on this journey, something happened to keep me going,” she says.
Biondolillo won’t stop, she won’t give up. But, like all of us in hard times, she could use a neighborly boost.
Reach Scott D. Elinburg at firstname.lastname@example.org