When I lived in Tempe, AZ I would often pass a homeless man who stood on the corner of the 101 exit at Priest Drive on my way home from work. The first time I met him I had rolled down my window to give him a couple bucks that I had in my visor. He stood expectantly at my window waiting for the change he knew was coming, only I couldn’t find the money I thought I had. All I could do is look sheepishly out my window and apologize. I told him I thought I had money but it wasn’t there and I offered him some mints and 67 cents that I had in the center console of my car. So I handed him the mints and what little change I had, then we chatted for a minute through my open car window about the weather and how glad he was for the cool breeze and cloud cover on that hot Arizona day. That was the beginning of our friendship. Every day for several months, on my way home from work, I would stop and visit with David at the corner. I would occasionally give him money or bring him food, and once he even excitedly told me about a whole pizza someone gave him and offered me a slice. I respectfully declined even though I thought it would be funny for the cars behind us to see me take food from a homeless person. One day I stopped and chatted with David on my way home and told him I planned to meet some friends for dinner that evening and if he planned to be on his corner I would bring him some food. He assured me he would be there and I left with the promise to see him about 6pm. However, when I came back with his food he wasn’t there and he was never on that corner again. It’s been over 10 years and I still look for David whenever I pass that way. My hope is that he was able to improve his lot in life and get off the streets. I can’t help but think of him whenever I see a homeless person on the street, no matter where that person may be.
When I read this story about Diana Kim, a photographer who was doing a photo essay on the homeless communities where she lived in Honolulu, it made me think of David all over again. Diana discovered that her own father was one of the members of that homeless community in 2012. She documented his life on the streets which must have been extremely difficult for her because of his illness and unresponsiveness to her pleading for him to get help. Here is the story Diana shared with NBC Asian America:
“Some of the earliest memories I have of my father is of him giving me Ring Pop candies whenever my mother and I would visit him. I had an insatiable craving for sweets and he would go behind my mother’s back and sneak me gummy bears and Ring Pops.”
Diana Kim started a photo essay documenting the homeless community 10 years before she discovered her father in that same homeless community. Her grandmother was the one who alerted Kim that her father’s health had suffered since he and her mother were divorced when she was five years old. That he wouldn’t bathe, eat or take his medication for schizophrenia and that she wasn’t sure where he was living.
Diana first saw her father standing on a corner near the street. She described the scene saying he was by himself, like he was completely lost. He had lost a lot of weight and when she called out to him he not only didn’t recognize her, but he didn’t respond at all.
“A woman came by and told me ‘don’t even bother trying, he’s been standing there for days. It’s what he does.’ I wanted to scream at her for not caring, for being so cruel, and not considering that he was my father. But then I realized that anger wouldn’t do anything to change the circumstances we were in — so I turned towards her and said, ‘I have to try.'”
“Photographing my own father actually began as a mechanism of protecting myself at first. I would raise my camera phone in front of me, almost as if that barrier would help keep me together.”
“It hurt to see him like this. Some days I would literally just stand there and stare downwards because I couldn’t get myself to see him in the condition he was in. My own flesh and blood, but still such a stranger to me…”
“Walking away was always the hardest part. Knowing that whatever brief moment that we had, this window of an opportunity where I hoped that I would somehow get him to agree to get help. And he wouldn’t respond to me. He wouldn’t look up to me. Nothing…. What can you do?”
“Many of the photographs were shot haphazardly. The photographer in me knew that these images needed to be created, that I needed to have them as a record for myself — a reminder that this was real even after I walked away.”
“There were nights when I wouldn’t find him. And other days when I least expected it, and he would be standing on the corner of a street. He suffered from severe schizophrenia, and left untreated, he was not always responsive. There were many instances when it appeared as if he was arguing with someone, but nobody was there.”
“I can’t count the number of times I sat next to my father on the street, wondering how his future would look like. I would sit there and pray quietly, just asking for a miracle and wishing that he would accept assistance. He would refuse to get treatment, take any medications, eat, bathe, or wear new clothes. I wasn’t sure if he would get better. There were times when I thought he would die there on that street.”
Diana Kim often found her father at this little corner with cardboard boxes.
He would sleep behind a cardboard barrier in the fetal position.
She would bring him food every night after her kids went to bed. Diana would crouch down by him and try to talk to him. Trying to convince him every night that he needed to get some help. But he never said anything and wouldn’t even make eye contact with his daughter.
One day, after two years of documenting her father’s homeless life, living on the streets of Honolulu, refusing help, Diana couldn’t find her father in any of his usual places. She later found out that her dad had suffered a heart attack and someone had found him and got him help.
“Having the heart attack truly saved his life. It gave him the opportunity to get back on a treatment plan. And he has been on it ever since.”
“My father is doing really well today. He is really proud of the fact that he has overcome such incredible adversity… He has goals, he has hope, and he has the will to succeed…”
Kim says her father still occasionally gets a distant look in his eyes. Like he’s still trying to work things out. She just takes it day by day and is grateful that they even have the relationship that they do today. That he’s still alive and in her life.
“Our relationship today is still very new. I would like to take him out to watch a movie soon. I have never watched a movie with him! We are taking things day-by-day.”
“Believe it or not, his schedule seems busier than mine sometimes. He likes to help his friends by giving them rides to dentist appointments, and is planning to visit his family in South Korea.”
“Every day is a gift. Some days are more challenging than others, but seeing my father in the flesh is a constant reminder of the strength of the human spirit and how precious life is.”
“So long as we are alive in this world, every day is an opportunity to take hold of that ‘second chance’. There is no failure unless you give up, and he never gave up. And I haven’t given up on him.”
I love that this story makes you realize that every homeless person has a history. More often than not they have family in this world that care for them and worry about them. It’s so easy to pass a homeless person on the street and rationalize the reasons why they are there, and quite often in so doing, justify your reason not to give them money. This story gives me hope that my friend David found his family and purpose in life again. That he didn’t meet me on the corner for dinner because he had better things come his way than food passed through a car window as he stood on a corner asking for help.