- Associated Press - Friday, May 20, 2016

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) - A new photography project will feature portraits of homeless people and formerly homeless people, alone and with the advocates who help them. Along with the portraits, stories and videos will focus on what it’s like to live on the streets and how having an advocate can make a difference.

For the most part, the advocates featured have no formal social work training. They are regular folks who help the homeless with things like providing food and camping supplies, connecting with housing agencies or mental and physical health providers and offering friendship.

Photographer and filmmaker Randy Bacon has partnered with Gathering Friends, a grassroots group of homeless advocates, for a project called “The Road I Call Home,” which will be revealed later this year as part of Bacon’s 7 Billion Ones collection.

The Springfield News-Leader (https://sgfnow.co/1XeZD2m ) reports that the final photo shoot was at Bacon’s studio, known among the homeless community as a welcoming place.

“I absolutely believe in the unique beauty of each person,” Bacon said between shoots. “I think for the people that call the streets their home - the road their home - too many of us don’t ever get past the exterior.”

Bacon said the portraits will be simple, intimate and big. He is planning to have the project complete in time for the First Friday Art Walk on September 2.

He said he hopes the portraits will be like an intriguing book cover, enticing the viewers to “open the book” and read the stories, watch the videos and take the time to learn about homelessness.

Perhaps, Bacon said, viewers will be inspired to become an advocate for the homeless.

Three years ago, Gathering Friends was a just private Facebook group used by Whitney Creehan, Terra Salinas and Jennifer Cannon. At the time, the women served dinner once a week at the Gathering Tree, a downtown drop-in center that closed in 2014. They used the Facebook page to coordinate who was cooking what.

Within a few months, word began to spread and folks joined the group, asking how to volunteer and donate.

Today, there are more than 2,000 members on that Facebook group with at least 100 active volunteers. The group works to provide Springfield homeless with food, tents, hand warmers in the winter, bug repellent in the summer, clothes, shoes, bus passes and hygiene products - whatever the need might be. In addition to the Veterans Coming Home Center, Gathering Friends volunteers serve meals and drop off sandwiches at Bill’s Place, a drop-in center on Commercial Street.

According to Cannon, more and more people are bringing their kids to serve meals and do street outreach.

“I think we are in a generation where everybody’s kids are so entitled,” she said. “People want their kids to see that there’s a path you could go down that is not a good one.”

The group also delivers food and supplies through a street outreach program for the homeless people who don’t visit drop-in centers.

And often times, these advocates develop close bonds with the homeless people and are able to help that person get off the streets.

Randy Bacon, who often befriends and photographs homeless people who stop by his studio, says he has seen it happen many times.

“For those that have an advocate, it’s almost like they’ve been adopted. They are doing much better,” he said. “What’s really cool is the advocate, from what I’ve witnessed, is getting more from the relationship.

“I see them loving on each other. They are laughing and it’s just like they are best friends,” Bacon recalled of the photo shoots. “For the homeless person, they’ve got this person who is like, ‘Yeah, I’m here with you. We are going to get through this together.”

Joe Moreira, who Bacon photographed for the project, said he had been homeless for about five years before advocates helped him get off the streets.

“Gathering Friends were the first people that I ever reached out to,” he said. “If they didn’t hear from me for three days or more, they knew where I camped. They would come by and check on me. It meant everything. It meant somebody gives a crap.”

Moreira, who has had a job and an apartment for more than a year, credits much of his success to his advocate, Devery Mills, founder of Hearts for the Homeless. When Moreira broke his leg and needed surgery, Mills put him in a motel. She also helped Moreira stay on track, attend meetings and eventually get his own apartment.

“It’s kind of what she does,” he said.


Information from: Springfield News-Leader, https://www.news-leader.com

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