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Rachel Fleischer

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Without A Home: What Lies Beneath The Stereotypes?

Posted: 06/09/09 01:30 PM ET

Over the four year period I spent documenting homeless people living in Los Angeles, very few of my subjects actually provoked genuine fear within me. But Joby was different, despite the immediate love and affection I felt for him, there was something about him that I sensed was unstable. It was this duality within him, among other things, that was so compelling to me.

The next time I saw Joby was a week or two after my first two interviews with him.
I was driving around North Hollywood, looking for more homeless people to speak to and spotted him sitting by a dumpster. I pulled my car over and set up my camera. He greeted me with warmth and gave me a big hug.

At this point I already knew Joby. This was our third time meeting and I felt that we had an understanding. There were plenty of things about him that could have and maybe did make me a little skeptical, but for whatever reason I was seeking something else that went beyond the surface. I was searching for a truth that was pure and uncontaminated by certain stereotypes, even if there was some truth to them.

When I reflect back on the initial image I have of Joby and his friends huddled around a shopping cart in a cul de sac with beers in hand, I realize this is the stereotype, but it is not the whole story. From our cars, from the streets, from our personal and isolated spheres that we inhabit daily, this is more or less what we see. In most cases what we see is understandably all we have time for. A passing image that looks conveniently like the stereotypes we already know all too well.

We see schizophrenics flailing their arms about, talking to themselves, when they should be under psychiatric care for a disease that has completely overtaken their minds. We see people who seem lazy and even dangerous; vagrants passing their time idly, while we are hard at work. We see people like Joby.

While sitting with Joby on this particular afternoon he seemed exceptionally angry, not at me but at the world around him. He had been yelling at this guy across the street (as seen in the video below), convinced that he had been staring at Joby for over an hour. Joby had had enough.

I am not really sure who he was screaming at and I was hesitant to further engage in whatever controversy already existed, so I kept my eyes and my camera on Joby.

At one point Joby pulled out a knife and threatened the guy across the street. The whole situation seemed overly dramatic and I gently tried to suggest to Joby that maybe this guy wasn't actually watching him, but was instead just minding his own business. But Joby was convinced otherwise and I wasn't about to get involved.

When I saw Joby pull the knife out of his pocket my heart leapt out of my chest. I stayed calm and tried not to move, for fear of startling him. Moments later, he closed up the knife and threw it to his side. I was enormously relieved.

He sat back down on his cushion by the dumpster and I started asking him questions. I was trying to understand what had happened to him and why he was so angry. I sensed intuitively that at the root of his rage was very profound sadness and grief.

Joby went on to explain how he had lost every single family member he had; his two daughters, his mother and his wife. His palpable pain and suffering, oozing from those puppy dog eyes of his, were beginning to make more sense to me.

But as we began talking more about his sorrow, I saw a side of Joby that I believe most people don't get to see and it wasn't just his pain that was revealed to me. I saw his warmth and sensitivity, his humor and chivalry, his determination to persevere and survive in spite of his odds.

Despite all of his anger and suffering, his addictions and violent impulses, (which I am not defending but merely trying to understand) his behavior that day reminded me that there is always more to the surface than meets the eye.

It's important to get past the stereotypes that limit us and often obstruct the truth. People are always so much more than they appear. When we realize this and take it to heart, we too become so much more; we become better versions of ourselves.

I have been looking for Joby for a long time now, this was one of the last times I saw him. His friends told me that he was probably back in jail, in an endless and revolving cycle of more violence, where Joby will most likely not get the care or rehabilitation that he needs and deserves.

I wish I had a simple solution for this problem. At the very least, we can remind ourselves that there are a lot of homeless people out there like Joby, who mean well but are filled with misplaced rage and sadness. We are living in a society with good intentions but scarce resources.

I felt compelled to share with others the side of Joby I saw that day because I feel that it is one we do not get to see very often and I think there is something hopeful about it. When we go out of our way and take the time listen to people and acknowledge their suffering and hear their stories, we are sure to make progress. It is not the one and only solution but I believe it is a very good beginning.


This clip contains language and content that may be disturbing to some viewers:

What Lies Beneath The Stereotypes? from Rachel Fleischer on Vimeo.

Clip courtesy of Without A Home

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