This Photojournalist Is Hitting The Road To Give A Face To Homelessness In America

Justin Doering is a kid, fresh out of university, with an ambitious idea. For the last four years he set his sights on communications and journalism and now that he’s graduated, and (with some help from Kickstarter) he’s getting a chance to pursue said ambitious idea. For the next couple of months, Doering will loop the states and interview as many homeless people as he can find.

It’s no surprise that we found Doering to be a perfect fit for this week’s installment of The Mad Ones. The young man set his goals high, he’s learning with every passing day, and his van might breakdown at any moment — that’s our sweet spot. The potential downfalls to the task at hand aren’t worth harping on, because Doering has his sights set on something he genuinely believes in: he wants to give a face to our nation’s homeless population, and he wants to do each and every one of his subjects justice in the process.

It’s ambitious, but the ambition of youth is an undeniable force and Doering’s project is already helping homeless people of all backgrounds share their stories. We sat down with him during the early days of his trip.

What’s your background? You say that this project has been on your mind for awhile. What is it about the homeless population that you want to personify? When did that start?

This idea actually came into my head, I think when I was 15. Fifty Sandwiches was the first name I thought of and I went with it. For me, I’m from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and there is no, well basically zero, homeless population in Couer d’Alene that I know of.

I think it was when my family went to California for trips. I would just see homeless people. I would see an entire population of people sitting outside on the street, completely ignored. Shunned by society in general. That really surprised me, that there’s over 500,000 homeless people in the United States, at least. We just tend to ignore them. We tend to think the worst of them simply by looking at them and protect ourselves by just running away from them because we think that they’re dangerous. We think that they mean harm. We think they have poor intentions.

I think that the project came from the fact that there’s an entire population that doesn’t have a voice. There’s an entire population whose stories are not being told. There’s no platform for them to tell them on. Being able to tell their stories, from an anecdotal perspective, is really important in thought and realization that there’s more to homelessness than just “being homeless.”

The original point of the project was to try to get a collective face of homelessness through interviews. I’ve done 20 and I’ve already realized that that’s not a possibility. That’s a good thing. To get a collective face, I would have to introduce 500,000 people.

I think the real point now is just to prove there’s so much more to homelessness than we know. It’s a person by person basis. You can’t possibly know enough about a person just by judging by the stereotype. I’ve run into people who do fulfill the stereotypes in some ways.

I’ve run into people who are heroin addicts, but just knowing they’re heroin addicts is absolutely no information to their background. I’ll talk to heroin addicts, if you want to reduce it to that, for an hour and a half and find out entire life stories basically that lead them down the road they’re on. Details about their recovery process. What they’re trying to do and where they want to be in a year or two. Even people who fulfill the stereotype, I’m finding it’s still very circumstantial. There’s still so much more to it than you would think.

You’re giving yourself one meal with each person, right?

Yeah. The original intent was to take them out for a sandwich and it was representing the idea of having lunch with a stranger. I’ve been finding out when you’re either approaching people on the street or going to shelters talking to people, they seem to … At a shelter, I can’t exactly go buy them a sandwich because they’re prone to doubt or they’re not allowed to take the shelter because of the program they’re in.

If I’m on the street, then they deny it every time. I actually haven’t bought anyone a sandwich. The name of the project is gradually losing its relevancy. That’s okay.

I’m having them write down all their names in their own handwriting. So by the time the book comes along I might use their names on the cover and I’ll change the name to 50 Signatures. That can all come later, right now I’m just focusing on the project at hand.

What was their reason for denying you?

It’s just circumstantial. Where I was at the time. I was at a park with someone and they just said, “Oh, no thanks. We could just talk.” Things like that. They just weren’t hungry or just haven’t had the interest in going to a deli and share a meal.

There are journalists and photographers who have dedicated years to studying the same thing. James Nachtwey spent days with one family in particular. Similar projects have been done. If you’re sitting down and just having a conversation with them, do you worry or have you been finding that you don’t have enough time to really get to know them?

In terms of time, every single interview has been at least an hour, probably an hour to two hours. I have, basically, all the time in the world. No matter how many questions I ask or how far I dig into the past, I’m obviously still only getting their life story in an hour and a half. I can’t possibly begin to capture their entire life story.

I’m trying to get the slices of life that at least show the diversity of the homeless population. The only thing they have in common is that they’re struggling to find housing.

I just read one that sticks out. I think it was Sara Jean in Los Angeles.

That was a little different from the other ones.

It was fascinating because all signs point to the fact that she was okay with where she was at. She didn’t want to be interviewed. She didn’t want to be photographed. She seemed like she didn’t want things to be different.

Right. I’ve talked to a few people who… they’re homeless as a choice. That’s another stereotype. That they just want to be homeless. Even the people that I’ve talked to, there’s obviously much more behind that.
What I find a really intriguing perspective, I talked to someone in Seattle, his name’s Scooby, who chooses to be homeless and he was still very adamant in giving back to his community. He would go with this one lady, who was working for the government, taking garbage. He would help her with that all the time. A couple times a week without any pay, just because he felt it was important that if he’s getting things from other people, at least you’re giving back in some manner.

There’s always more to it. I went to Venice Beach a couple days ago and talked to an artist on Venice Beach who was very minimalistic. He wanted the simple things. He was creating art and he was incredibly passionate about it. Someone came up and tried to buy his favorite piece. He talked to them for like 20 minutes about how much it meant to him. He was breaking up in tears trying to sell this piece. Just so he could make some money to buy a sleeping bag.

Even in those situations, like I said, if you’re choosing to be homeless, there’s so much more behind it. If I was only to get the people who … Usually the people who don’t want to be homeless are finding shelters so they’re in the protection for the state. If I were to just use those people, then that’s kind of misrepresenting the wider group. If I just choose people who are just drug addicts, that’s the same.

The idea is really to just get a broad range, as much variety as possible.

I saw that some of the people you find in homeless shelters. Others you find just on the street. What avenues are you using? If you’re going into a city where you have zero connections, what’s your go-to?

I have a list of shelters. I’ll contact probably five or six shelters for every city I go into. If ones get back to me, I’ll check those out. If none get back to me, then I’ll go on the street.

In Portland, I went to a shelter. I got three interviews there. Then, I just went out into the street. Then I got three more. Another one you might be interested in is the Portland one. His name is Ian. That might be my favorite one.

Why’s that?

He was very soft spoken. Very easy to talk to. Very open talking to me. His story was just incredible. He just went on and on. I only published half of it, I’m actually going through the second half today. Once you read into it a bit, you’ll see what I mean. He was very intriguing.

I’m surprised at how open these people are who let me talk to them and pick their brain and dig into their lives. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they don’t get talked to. No one’s asking them questions. No one’s coming up to them and speaking to them.

That’s a bold assumption that no one’s talking to them because they’re human beings. People are inherently communal. They may be introverts by choice but, if not, they certainly have the option to talk with one another…There are people on the street who engage passersby in conversation every day. Some of them engage back and others just walk past. Be that as it may, I don’t think it’s fair to assume that no one talks to them.

You’re absolutely right. I didn’t mean to make that assumption. The idea of actually digging into their story and trying to hear not just “how are you today?” I’m asking about their life story, digging into the personal things that they might not have even thought about or spoken about in years.

You’re a month into it now, right, or less?

It’s just about a month.

You have two months to cover a lot of ground. Man, that’s the funny thing about road trips, isn’t it? They take way longer than you ever anticipate.

I’m realizing that already.

With a project like yours, though, you take a three month trip. I can imagine it taking a lifetime. This is something you could potentially carry on where you’ll engage them in conversation and want to tell their story. But, To what end? You’re personifying them. You’re humanizing them. You’re bringing attention to these individuals. Is the overall goal to get money their way? To get support their way? To bring attention to that individual? Or is that individual just one face in a giant crowd of homelessness that you want to represent?

I would say that it’s a face in the crowd of homelessness. As much as I would love to, with this being a non-profit. The rules of a non-profit are…I’m not sure why, I don’t think you can give to a specific individual.

That’s all very ahead of me. It’s a one-person project. It’s a learning process. After the project itself ends, aligning with a non-profit, obviously there’s not enough time for me to do the book. It’s out and it’s doing pretty well.

That’s all ahead of me. I’m trying not to get too far ahead of myself. As of now, yes I’m just trying to get snippets of lives, just to show the larger issue of homelessness. As much as I would like to, it’s hard to even contact the people who have been living in the shelters. Chances are they’re not going to be there by the time I’m done with a book. If I’m meeting them on the street, chances are they don’t have a phone or any contact information.

Are you staying in touch with any of the people? You mentioned Ian is one of your favorite interviews. Have you followed up or touched base with him since then?

Not with Ian, just because he did not have any contact information. I’ve got the contact information of three people that I’ve interviewed so far. When I can, I’m obviously more than happy to keep in contact with them. I really like to show them their story once it’s posted and everything.

I’ve been trying to, but obviously with a lot of these people that’s the problem. That’s the problem with them getting jobs as well. If you’re applying for a job, and you don’t have an actual phone number to leave, or for when you live at a shelter, they’re obviously going to have a much harder time getting hired.

One of your inspirations was Humans of New York, which is super clear. Have you factored in that, he asks everyone a very specific list of questions. Do you have a similar approach or has that been adapted?

I researched a lot into what Brandon did when he would interview people before I did my first interview. After the first interview, the first question I asked was “Well, how did you get here?” Then it stemmed from there.

The first interview I actually did not urge a conversation. I didn’t keep asking questions like that. I didn’t actually end up using any of my questions. I still have those questions, if I feel that I need to use them. For the most part, it’s very open and informal. It’s much more of a conversation. I try to use what they’re saying to keep them going, keep them opening up to something.

I do bring up questions. If I feel the need or want to keep seeking for information, then I’ll ask the questions. Some of them I did take from Brandon. Like, what’s your greatest struggle right now? A piece of advice that you’d give to someone? How do you overcome some of the struggles you’ve had? Things like that. It’s just a little bit more specific to their living situation.

Do you worry that leaving it as open ended as you have been? They have the reigns in that regard so they ultimately steer the conversation however they see fit, which I think could be really great but could also pose a threat to the integrity of the project, in that they’re not necessarily telling an honest story of who they are, but more-so what they want you to hear. Do you fear it going that way?

I could. I see what you’re getting at. If I do let them just keep talking. I actually had one conversation with someone in Redding that I didn’t feel was quite there so I didn’t even bother posting it. These people, some of them do have some need mental health support or they may be exaggerating to a certain extent. I can honestly say that for the most part it’s incredibly sincere. I do still direct the conversation. I try to get it to where it needs to go or try to get us to where I think that their story would best fit with my type of project.

I think that a lot of this is getting them to open up as much as they can. If I do let them talk, I let them say what they have to and then I can get it back on track after that. It helps them a lot because they’re not going to, they feel much more open to continue talking about something they that they are uncomfortable with.

Ian, for example, he actually mentioned, I think of two occasions, that he had just lost a family member. I was just like, keep going, keep talking about it as much as you want to. There’s also something I want to hear. After I let him finish that, I asked about the family member that he lost. “So you mentioned that you had a family member, would you mind opening up to me about that?” Then, that’s how he talked to me.

That’s the good thing about not having a time limit. I can try to get as much out of them as they’re willing to give me.

With the people that I’ve read so far, there’s a little intro you’ll write and then it just goes straight into their story, their words. I also noticed that in your About Me page, you say on a couple of occasions that it’s not your story and you want to be as objective as possible. By writing an intro, aren’t you essentially making it through your lens because you’re shaping the viewer’s outlook?

You’re absolutely right. That’s what I meant with the, say with the Sara Jean, those older ones. The Sara Jean one and all the ones in Boise were during the Kickstarter. I actually do have to go back and edit those because those were, I threw in a couple paragraphs, basically a narrative of me sitting down with them.

The original intent with that was to try to make it seem like the reader themselves was sitting down, but you’re absolutely right. With the newer ones, I haven’t done that at all. I just posted 5 or 6 that were just the interviews. I think I will still be adding them, I’m going to go back and add a paragraph or two. That’s going to be more focused on sharing it with the physical events. I don’t want to be adding into it my own narrative. I will be taking that out.

I do still want to be able to share the anecdotes that I hear, with some physical events. I feel like if it’s just anecdotal evidence, then people will say, “Well that’s just one situation.” I want to be able to say, “Well, no this is an issue on a larger scale.” Like with Ian, I think I did that with narrative, I added that he was a runaway, LGBT youth. I think he ran away from home when he was just like 18. I just show that there’s a severity between homeless youth and homeless LGBT youth is much greater than youth and LGBT because people run away from each other.

I do want to pair the stories with statistical evidence to show all this is an actual problem. I do want to definitely do that. You’re absolutely right. I don’t want to get too egotistical and just be pushing on my own narratives, like, “Hey I really love this guy. You guys should love him, too.”

Which isn’t a bad thing. If you’re shaping the viewer’s lens, there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just interesting seeing that you were so aggressively saying that this is not your story and then adding in a bit of your story.

You’re absolutely right. That’s actually something I had not considered. You’re absolutely right. I will have to look back at that because I’m going to have to really sit down and consider what type of angle I want to take as the authors perspective. The problem with that is, I realize unfortunately that as I’m traveling, I’m realizing a question I should have asked with certain interviews.

That’s probably going to be something that goes on. I would think that the blog and the interviews on the blog may be evolving as time goes. I’m accepted it, I’m always going to be behind. I’ll be behind the whole time, with editing, and posting and everything.

Of course, man. You said it’s going to be a three month road trip, I think that means it’s going to be an eight month project.

Even when I get back, obviously, there’s edits. I need to find publishing. There’s a whole list of things to do. It’s just begun by the time I get back.

The Mad Ones is a reference to a famous quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars, and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ”

Watch this series for interviews and profiles with people doing big, wild, bold, creative things with their lives. #TheMadOnes