A candid look at life on the streets

Lynn Shelter Association’s “Off the Grid” photography project is exhibited at the Massachusetts State House.


BOSTON The Lynn Shelter Association is using photography to give a close-up view of the struggles of homelessness.

The Lynn Shelter Association (LSA) , along with the Lynn delegation, and partner agencies, Homes for Families and The Haven Project, hosted a presentation of LSA’s “Off the Grid” photography project on Monday at the State House.

The photography exhibit displaying pictures of homelessness in Lynn will be on display in the State House this week.  

Karen Bowden, board vice-president of LSA, said the exhibit was an idea that she, Alison Brookes, board president, and Susan Ogan, also of LSA, had talked about for a while. She said they wondered how to use something through the arts that allowed the folks who were experiencing homelessness to express themselves and send a message.

Bowden said they were inspired by a New York Times picture and story piece, where homeless people in Paris were given disposable cameras and their pictures were collected, enlarged and placed around the Luxembourg Garden.

From there, Bowden said they applied for a grant through the Lynn Cultural Council and received $1,000.

“And with that $1,000, we bought 13 nice digital cameras,” Bowden said. “We weren’t going to use disposable. We were going to really invest in the people that we worked with. So, we took the 13 digital cameras and we really set out to make this happen.”

Signs were put up around the Lynn Emergency Shelter to see if there was any interest in the people lodging there. There turned out to be lots of interest, Bowden said, and after interviews, 13 photographers from the shelter were selected.

Bowden said more than 6,000 photographs were collected and the challenge became selecting which ones to put in a show that was targeted for Lynn Arts last September. Messages also had to be selected, that were collected from meeting with the project’s photographers each week, where photographers talked about what their pictures meant to them.

“To the photographers, your artwork, and it is art, is just magnificent,” said state Rep. Daniel Cahill (D-Lynn). “You really captured the struggles of the city in a very beautiful way and I mean that. And I believe through your work, we’ll continue to showcase some of the great things the city has to offer, but at the same time, remind us that there’s so much work that has to be done.”

State Rep. Lori Ehrlich (D-Marblehead) said the LSA project was about giving the homeless a voice.

“But this project is doing more than giving them a voice,” Ehrlich said. “This project is humanizing people who are not getting the same respect on the federal level right now. And I think that’s really important.”

Ehrlich said one photo really spoke to her, a photographer who chose a self-portrait of shattered glass, which she interpreted as their sense that they were probably feeling shattered as well. She said the project gave the photographers a chance to express themselves, and a sense of purpose to maybe pick themselves up and better their lives.

One of the photographers, Joanne Paul-Joassainte, 48, provided insight into the daily life of homelessness to those gathered at Beacon Hill. She said she is currently homeless because she recently divorced her husband. She can’t afford market rent in Massachusetts by herself.

She said being homeless is a full-time job, with planning where to spend her days and nights, especially in the cold winter months.

One day, Paul-Joassainte said she would love to find affordable housing in Boston, which she considers her home. She’s grateful to the Lynn Emergency Shelter for providing her with a bed and now Rosie’s Place, for her current 21-day bed.

“Having my own home one day would definitely improve my quality of life,” she said. “I’d be able to take better care of myself and my health … I would be able to be part of the community again and truly have a place to call home. I’m homeless, not hopeless.”

Tomoni Mwamunga, 23, a Lynn resident and client of the Haven Project, said before becoming homeless, he lived with family on his mother’s side. Because of family issues, including alcoholism and drug abuse, he had to leave that environment. His parents live in Kenya, and without a mother and father to support him and with his minimal income, he found himself at a low point.

He was directed to the Haven Project by a former local pastor of his, and the program helped him find temporary stable housing, and provided crucial resources, such as food and furniture. He aspires to return to college and one day have a successful career in neuroscience, but the stress of trying to secure stability through permanent housing has taken priority.

“I do believe that higher education will help me better my life and ultimately my community, so I hope to one day be back in school soon,” Mwamunga said. “I am young and full of hope and despite the bumpy road so far, I do believe positive things are ahead, and school, security, a career are among those, but first permanent housing.”

Sen. Thomas McGee (D-Lynn) said homelessness is “a challenge we all face together” and the photos are a way to humanize the issue. He said it was important to work together to make sure everybody has an option to have a good life and to have something better than what they might have right now.

Libby Hayes, representing Homes for Families, said a recent report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition showed that Massachusetts needs 180,000 units of affordable housing for households below 30 percent of the median area income. She said only 1.29 percent of the state’s operating budget is being spent on housing.

“We recommend spending more than that in the upcoming budget cycle,” she said. “If we want to address homelessness, we have to invest in housing.”

Gayla Cawley can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.

More Stories In News