Parallel Worlds

As I have begun to spend time meeting and talking with homeless guests of Operation Nightwatch at their various locations I have observed a consistent theme.  There is a strong sense of community within the homeless population, deep friendships are obvious.  I see a lot of parallels to the tribal communities in Africa, where belonging to the tribe is critical for survival.  Adolescents go to great lengths via various physical and mental rituals to earn the right to be a member of the tribe and the community it brings.

Living on the streets of Portland must be a tough existence, everything I have seen backs that up.  Having someone to look out for you must be especially important and given this reliance on others it is no surprise to me such strong friendships are formed.  At the St Johns location I chatted to three incredibly fun and interesting gentlemen who were reeling off one story after another.  Do you remember when we…..the stories went on and on.

I have also noticed a kind of code within the homeless community.  Beyond looking out for each other there appear to be standards and expectations in order to be accepted.  Without digging in too deeply, these struck me as a set of core values, such as don’t steal, share what you have, etc.  I heard of people who had broken the rules who were treated at best with suspicion.

This strong sense of community is very important but I wonder if it plays an unexpected role.  In the tribal culture in Africa, once you join the tribe you are a member for life, you don’t leave and move to the next tribe.  Once you join the homeless community, are you a member of this tribe for life?  I have spoken to a number of people who have been clean for numerous years and appear to be able or very close to being able to move back into the regular population and yet they haven’t.  It must be very hard to leave behind your friends, those people who have been with you through the worst of times, when you hit rock bottom and had no further to fall.

I need to learn more but it strikes me we live in parallel worlds and the cross-over between them in both directions is very painful in different ways.  What does it take to successfully re-enter the society we live in and leave behind the streets?

OPNW-SJ-4-Edit1 Ethiopia-D5-121-Edit1 ONW-3-28-Edit1 Ethiopia-D4-170 OPNW-SJ-7-Edit1 Ethiopia-D8-200 OPNW-SJ-11-Edit1 Ethiopia-D7.5-73Ethiopia D3-375-Edit1 ONW-3-19-Edit1


10 thoughts

  1. That’s a profound observation, Andy, about the deep community bonds that are formed in the street communities. It makes me wonder if the bonds these people experienced in mainstream or non-street communities were sadly much less satisfying.

  2. Andy, I love everything about this. Your juxtaposition of photos of the two ‘tribes’ is masterful and powerful.
    I share your curiosity… and wonder if it’s the deep connection, born of necessity, that both these communities have that is the ‘tie that binds’ – with all of the light that tie brings, and all of its shadow.

  3. Good stuff, Andy. I agree with Sharon that the juxtaposition of the photos really makes an impact. It seems that since the beginning of time and the first molecules and tiny organisms, life has sought out more life and communities. Two weeks ago I posted a short clip on a photographer in NYC who grouped strangers on the street for his subjects and it was amazing how quickly these individuals took to each other. I always look forward to your blog.

  4. Hi Andy,

    Liked your insight–and your photos (as always) are great.

    Earlier we had talked about doing a Portrait Night for guests around the holidays. Still something you’d be willing to do?




  5. Fascinating, Andy! I’m off tomorrow north of Denver for the Ivory Crush that the US is doing. I got an “invite” for this historical and monumental event which hopefully will save elephants. Will be a member of the media, so I can move around to photograph this… Best, Barbara

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