These are some of the faces of homelessness in Chicago, captured by Jeffrey Wolin
The retired Indiana University photography professor trained his lens on Chicago’s homeless. His new book reveals a side of homelessness that’s often hidden.
Surely, this country would soon step up to solve the homelessness crisis, he thought.
In his new book, “Faces of Homelessness,” Wolin betrays no lingering naivete about quick solutions as he explores the scope and depth of this deeply entrenched social problem.
Still, under Wolin’s sympathetic treatment, this collection of portraits of homeless individuals somehow retains the photographer’s hopeful outlook.
“You need to know who the population is before you can solve the problem of homelessness,” he said as we walked through an exhibition of his work at the Catherine Edelman Gallery, 1637 W. Chicago Ave., where it’s being shown through Feb. 15.
So Wolin has set out to introduce us, one person at a time, using his trademark technique of incorporating text containing a bit of each person’s story that’s printed directly on the photo.
There’s Thomas, the self-described mayor of the Uptown tent city. He first became homeless when he was kicked out of his uncle’s home at age 14 after his own father died.
And Andon, a Bulgarian refugee, says health problems led to job losses and ultimately eviction.
And Cecilia, who says she and her two young sons became homeless after she left an abusive husband.
These same striking photos will be used for an online panel discussion at 6 p.m. Tuesday hosted by the Chicago Public Library and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. The coalition then plans to give them more exposure through a series of community events involving the American Indian Center, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council and others.
Wolin is an Indiana University photography professor who maintained a second home in West Town for years before moving to Old Town full-time after retiring in 2015.
With his interest piqued by the homeless people he encountered on the street, Wolin enlisted the homeless coalition to support his idea for a book project.
The coalition redirected his thinking, introducing Wolin to its network of homeless and formerly homeless “leaders.” They schooled him about all of the homelessness that he wasn’t seeing — the people living in shelters or “doubled up” with friends or family.
“What I learned was that the homeless are mostly invisible,” Wolin said. “Homelessness takes many more forms than living on the streets.”
Wolin also learned there are more causes of homelessness than substance abuse and mental illness.
Some people end up homeless as a result of escaping abusive relationships, he said. Others lost a job, parent or spouse — or saw their savings wiped out by unexpected medical bills. Some were kicked out of their homes by their parents after coming out as gay.
“It could happen to anyone,” Wolin said.
These are concepts I have been trying to get across for many years. But Wolin has a gift I don’t have — the ability to show you through his photos.
Wolin’s respect for his subjects is evident. His photos capture their dignity, even in difficult circumstances.
“We don’t need more images of people sleeping on heating grates,” he said.
What also became apparent as we talked is that Wolin has a fondness for the homeless people he photographed. Some have become friends. He stays in touch when possible, though he’s also learned it can be difficult to keep track of homeless people.
Wolin expanded his project to include photos of homeless individuals in Los Angeles, the big difference there being they have considerably less chance of freezing to death.
He obtains written consent from those he photographs and works with them to tell their story in their own words.
Melodi Serna, executive director of the American Indian Center, said colleagues were surprised to learn that her photo is in Wolin’s book, her personal bout with homelessness for three years having previously remained under the radar.
“You can be the parent volunteer of the year and still be homeless,” she said, referring to herself.
Serna, a single mom, Navy veteran and Native American, said she probably didn’t think through all the ramifications of being photographed for the book when she agreed to do that. But she hopes putting herself out there will help others. She struggled through a difficult time, she said, and came out in a better place.
“It’s the story of many of the people I am now tasked with helping,” she said.
In bringing us face to face with people like Serna, Wolin gives us a chance to open our eyes — and our hearts.