Shedding stereotypes: book depicts lives of Lenawee's homeless residents 2009.12.23

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

When Lad Strayer and Jennifer Burd started visiting Adrian’s homeless residents, a stereotype or two fell away. And then another and another.homeless.jpg

The better they got to know the people, the more they understood their lifestyle.

Strayer and Burd spoke at Morenci’s Stair Public Library last week to tell about their experience which started off as a newspaper series but later developed into a book, “Daily Bread.”

“It changed our lives,” Burd said. “We learned so much about this subculture. So many things confronted my stereotypes about homelessness.”

Strayer, a photographer, said he’s heard the incredulous question many times—There are really homeless people in Adrian? How many?

People expect an answer, such as seven or a dozen, as though they could be counted up and quantified.

“Most of them look like this lady,” he said, pointing to one of his photographs. “They don’t look homeless at all.”

Often it’s a case of “couch homeless”—staying with a friend for a while, then with a relative, then another friend, always somewhere to live for a time, but nowhere to call home. They generally had the same mindset as those who lived in the woods.

Strayer said his connection with the homeless population started in 2002 as a personal project. He saw a lot of interesting faces and he wanted to learn more.

“After getting to know some of them,” he said, “I found out there were some really interesting stories.”

He spoke with Burd, who then worked as a free-lance reporter, about joining him in his visits with some homeless people.

Starting conversations

The pair started by simply sitting and talking, but after a week or so, they asked if there was any interest in telling their stories for a newspaper article in the Adrian Daily Telegram.

“Some were very interested,” Burd said, “some wanted nothing to do with it.”

Strayer said their success in making connections came through the way they approached their subjects.

“We learned very quickly not to judge people by how we live,” he said. “We never tried to push our values onto them.”

They also learned how easy it can be to reach the circumstances faced by many of their new acquaintances.

“It can happen more easily than we think,” Burd said. “People can fall outside the mainstream.”

Think of a merry-go-round, Strayer said. It starts to go fast and if you fall off, it’s pretty hard to get back on.

“We never met anyone who complained or tried to get pity,” he said.

“And they did have a sense of dignity,” Burd added.

Take the case of a man named Kevin. He lives in the woods in a small, simple house made of found objects.

“There was an independent streak in a lot of people,” Burd said. “Kevin had the desire to live in the woods rather than follow someone else’s rules.”

He took his clothes to the Laundromat and looked clean. His hair and beard were trimmed. He didn’t fit the stereotype of a homeless man.

“I’m comfortable,” he told his visitors. “I’ve got everything I need.”

Kevin broke away from this life for a while. He moved to Florida, married and had a good job. Then one day Strayer ran across him back in Adrian. He was living in the woods again.

“Some people just don’t fit into the mainstream,” he said. “I have respect for the man. He’s not standing on the corner asking for a dollar.”

Women on the street often had domestic violence issues, Burd said, and they were willing to talk about it in great detail.

Strayer said he and Burd often noticed cycles. A woman would escape an abusive situation, seem to be improving, then make a decision that would place her right back into trouble.

“It was very frustrating to see these cycles go on,” he said.

Burd gave the example of a woman who fell through the cracks and ended up on the street. She was living a middle class life until her husband lost his job. She found out he had abused their daughter and they eventually lost their house. The woman drove from Ohio to Adrian to visit a relative. The car broke down. She never left.

Not what you think

Most people expect the homeless to be living sad, grouchy lives, Burd said, but most of the people she met had relationships, enjoyed interacting with others and had things to do during the day.

Even Steve, a fellow who looked the way people think a homeless person should appear, always thought about his day and what he needed to accomplish. He had a work ethic, and like most of the homeless in Adrian, work was going “canning”—collecting returnable bottles and cans.

One day Steve said, “I woke up and discovered I had $1.50 in my pocket so I took the day off.”

Jim, who lived in a homemade tent, showed that he had a rich inner life when he talked about waking in the morning to his green, lush paradise and watching deer in the distance.

“There are a lot of reasons for becoming homeless,” Burd said, “and a lot of ways to deal with it. We saw many creative survival strategies.”

Strayer said he and Burd aren’t trying to romanticize a homeless lifestyle. It certainly isn’t all good, and there were several homeless individuals that they avoided. They were trouble, he said.

“But we gained so much more from these people than we ever gave to them,” he said. “I’m much less judgmental now.”

An audience member asked if there was any legitimacy to responses made by some people, such as, “I have to work for a living. Why should I help them out?”

Burd said she believes society needs to care for people who can’t do it on their own, and services aren’t always easy to obtain.

“The things they’re getting for free are so minimal,” Strayer said. “The complainers wouldn’t want to live at that level.”

There are so many things that most of us take for granted, he said, but many people don’t have the aptitude to work through the issues. Segments of daily life that seem simple to most people can pose a large challenge for others.

“I’m not in favor of giving everything away,” Strayer said, “but we’re all different people with different limitations, both physical and mental.”

“Homelessness,” Burd concluded, “is a very complicated issue.”

• A display of photos and writings from the “Daily Bread” remain on display in the Liz Stella Annex of Stair Public Library through the end of the year.

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