On a single night in 2016, more than 549,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States, a third of whom were in unsheltered locations.
That stat comes from a 96-page Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report, which claims to a “snapshot of homelessness.” It's full of infographs and charts that attempt to fully portray the problem.
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But statistics aren’t enough. To truly grasp the what causes homelessness, there's nothing better than talking with people who are without a fixed residence.
Justin Doering has done exactly that.
A recent graduate of Boise State University, majoring in communications with an emphasis in journalism, he started a project called Fifty Sandwiches, for which he spent three months driving across all 50 states (more than 13,000 miles) buying homeless individuals a meal in exchange for their stories. He documented those stories on the project’s website.
Doering is trying to transform the way we understand homelessness from a quantitative analysis to a qualitative one.
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“Homeless people are really misjudged and misrepresented,” Doering told Global Citizen. “Like most groups, the loudest and most visible end up speaking for the entire population. The plastered man panhandling on the street corner catches far more eyes than the family sleeping in their minivan at Walmart.”
The project is more relevant today than ever as states across the country contend with burgeoning homelessness problems.
While drugs and alcohol contributed to homelessness for many who took part in the project, the experiences of Doering’s subjects go well beyond such stereotypes.
Ian, from Portland, Oregon, for instance, struggled to accept himself for being gay in a Christian family – LGBT youth face a disproportionately high risk of being homeless.
Beth, from Richmond, Virginia, had to pay high medical costs for herself and her mother which she couldn’t afford. Arithomer from Washington, D.C., and Gary, from Redding, California, both suffered serious health conditions that make working impossible.
Not every story is filled with heartache.
Doering also documents a sweet experience with an 18 or 19 year old woman on the beach in Los Angeles, California, who wouldn’t share the details of her life. Instead, she spent an hour with Doering reading poetry.
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Though some of the people featured in Fifty Sandwiches have shirked material possessions and embraced homelessness as a lifestyle, Doering contends this is one of the greatest misconceptions about the homeless population – that being homeless is a choice, and, not in fact, the result of forces outside of a person’s control.
“It’s a slippery slope,” he said. “There’s not one reason to it. If you’re looking for a job, you can’t turn in a resume without a phone number to reference. There are so many steps.”
And as Doering implied, the longer a person remains homeless, the harder it can be to recover. The stress, social dislocation, and constant scrambling for material survival can make it hard for a person to find the time and energy to regain stability.
The project was six years in the making for Doering. A Kickstarter raised just over $10,000 in May 2016 and made Fifty Sandwiches a reality. He finally hit the road last August.
Doering is currently working to publish a book based on the project. Unlike the HUD report, these pages won’t be filled with numbers, but human experiences.
“The first step is to understand the issue,” he said. “The stories are so unique; they really can’t be grouped.”