New York City has a long and sordid history with its homeless. While the city has been attempting to deal with the problem for years, the issues still persists.
In fact, since 2006, the number of homeless people have steadily risen, reaching all-time highs of over 58,000 homeless people sleeping in shelters each night.
And those numbers don’t account for New York’s homeless who seek refuge on the streets.
Photographer and filmmaker Andrea Star Reese discovered a community of such people, living in makeshift dwelling inside a 2.5-mile long Amtrak tunnel on Manhattan’s west side. Over the course of 7 years, Reese met and photographed many of them, gaining intimate access to their lives.
She found that the people she met, mostly shunned by society and living in relative squalor, were strong, resilient, and had knowledge to share.
“They took care of one another, saved lives, stood together against predators and extended comfort to the damaged, to the sad,” Reese tells Business Insider.
The section where the homeless seek shelter is a stretch of tunnel that runs 2.5 miles from 72nd street to 122nd street in Manhattan, directly under Riverside Park. It was used for freight trains until 1980, after which a well-documented shanty town evolved at its south end, reported to house roughly 100 people.
In 1991 it reopened for use as an Amtrak tunnel, triggering a massive eviction of the homeless living there. But as time went on, more people moved back in, making homes in small crevices and in rafters.
Reese was in need of a subject for photojournalism class she was taking in 2007, and recalled the evictions in the tunnel during the '90s. She decided to explore the south end, the opposite end of the tunnel where the evictions occurred.
Upon entering the tunnel through an opening in a fence, Reese found signs of people living in the rafters. She called up to them, but no one was home. When she returned the next day, she met Chuck and Lisa.
At the time Lisa was very pregnant. The couple said they needed a photographer to document Lisa's pregnancy and to capture the fleeting moment when they would be a family, before the baby would be taken to adoption services. Reese went with them to the hospital and for the next seven years documented Chuck, Lisa, and many others whom she met in the tunnels.
Reese says that the inhabitants of the tunnel allowed her into their world because they wanted their lives and plight to be documented. 'The men and women involved understood why the photographs were necessary for a complete and balanced story,' she says. She says she never knew quite what would happen or who she would meet. 'I just followed them,' Reese says.
Chuck and Lisa met at a recycling truck, where she told him about her abusive boyfriend at the time. Chuck offered to let Lisa stay with him and to protect her from her boyfriend. Lisa had been down a hard road, giving birth to her first child when she was 14 and being in and out of rehab programs 15 times.
Reese also met Country, who had previously worked at as a cook and a dietitian in various colleges, until he fell on hard times. During the time that Reese followed Country, he was arrested five times in one year. Despite the hardships, told Reese he stayed homeless for 'the beauty of it. I love the street.'
Brooklyn, who suffers from schizophrenia and depression, was evicted from her home and slept on subway tracks until she was robbed and beaten. She lived in a refrigerator box until some kids set it on fire with her inside. Later, she followed a pack of feral cats to the Amtrak tunnel, where Reese met her and photographed her. Brooklyn was mostly left alone by authorities because she kept her place free of debris.
Reese says the governmental aid set up to help the homeless is often times misguided and that the city shelters just don't work. 'City shelters are not viable solutions, when a box on the street or a dark corner inside a wall provides a safer, more private, cleaner, parasite free home,' she explains.
Getting healthcare is also a struggle for many homeless, many of whom suffer from various mental illnesses. Doctors refuse care to those not currently in governmental help programs and this often leads to self-medication by using illegal drugs. Detox centres can turn away patients who aren't high or drunk 'enough.'
However, Reese says that the Center for Urban Community Services, a non-governmental human services agency has been doing a lot of great work. But, problems still persist and Reese says that much more help is needed.
After 7 years of shooting in the tunnels, Reese's subjects left due to increasing raids by authorities. Reese says many have been housed, while others remain on the streets. She is still in contact with many of the families and individuals. 'Progress for all is slow, but they are trying,' she says.
Reese says during her time in the tunnel and with the people she met, she was constantly surprised and humbled. She said the people worked hard and shared the little they had with each other. 'These men and women were courageous, compassionate and generous,' she says, adding that she was never afraid for herself, only for them.
Reese hopes viewers of her work will take away from it lessons about life, the same lessons that her subjects hoped to impart by allowing her to document their lives. 'All they asked was that I accept and tell the truth, all of it, even when it wasn't easy for them or me, in the hopes that young people who see this story will know that this is not the way to live,' she says.
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