Homeless photo exhibit lodges at Thomas Center starting June 14
Peggy Butler, Mahogany Revue
May/June 1997

They were men and women with eyes showing acres of harsh milage, and they were revealing their most intimate secrets. One man told of having to live in a hodge podge of cardboard shanties, after he was laid off from his job as an air-traffic controller. Another, a crack addict with a severe fistula on her neck, explained how difficult it was to keep her body nourished, because each time she ate or drank, the food and water drained out of the hole. A bearded elderly man in a blue shirt with scars on his legs told how he became one of New York's street people.

The confessions, heard from Miami to Manhattan, are part of a photo exhibit by Hollace M. Figueira, who's been taking pictures of the homeless for nearly 20 years. Figueira's exhibit, which is at the Thomas Center in Gainesville June 14-July 8th, contains 85 photos and six poems that describe her feelings and the conditions her homeless subjects live in. Donations collected at the exhibit will go to St. Francis House, a shelter for the homeless in Gainesville.

The collection shows that homelessness is not limited to race, sex, gender, or age. The photos, a mixed population of street people, including unfortunates in New York City, along upper Broadway, extending from Columbia University to Lincoln Center. The native New Yorker began showing her photographs in 1988 and has since had more than 25 exhibitions. During the past few years her photos have been on display at Rollins College, the University of South Florida, Florida Atlantic University, the University of Miami, the Broward County Library, Broward Community College, Miami-Dade Community College, the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood and the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in Louisville, Kentucky.

Figueira, 44, began photographing the homeless in 1978 following the death of her father, Julius. During an especially grievous day, she went to see her therapist who gave her the advice that would change her life. "I was told that by focusing on others instead of myself it would lessen the grieving process," she recalls. Adhering to the doctor's advice, her next step was to purchase a camera, and began snapping pictures of the homeless she saw on her way into the city from her suburban home.

In 1981 Figueira moved to Florida where she continued to photograph the homeless. The pictures reveal that Florida's homeless population is more widespread than has been reported. According to the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, Florida has reported an increase in homelessness in recent years. A 1995 study revealed that 33 percent of the homeless in Florida are families, including 8,000 children. Fifty-six percent are single men and 11 percent are single women. "Many people make the mistake that homelessness is limited to New York and California," she says. "unfortunately street people can be found in every state in the U.S. Poverty is not immune to geographics."

When asked how her subjects feel about having their photos taken, Figueira says the reactions are mixed. "There have been cases where people have thrown things at me to keep me from taking their pictures. But overall the reaction has been positive," she says. "I really enjoy photographing children. Their faces light up, and for a few minutes they forget that they don't have a place they can call home."

Reprinted from Mahogany Revue, March 21-April 4, 1997, P. O Box 6779, Ocala, FL 34478-6779.

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