Over the past 10 months, Martin Schoeller has photographed and interviewed more than 180 homeless people in Los Angeles in a makeshift studio set up at the corner of Sycamore and Romaine in West Hollywood, where they are served dinners by an aid organization, the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition.
“In photographing the homeless, I find that it’s the young people I meet who are the most heartbreaking,” Schoeller says. “There was one girl, Kemi, who’s 19 years old and has been in and out of homes for five years. When you talk to them, what resonates the most is that these were people who were never loved in their lives — and sometimes more than that, being abused and abandoned by parents — and they have this strong underlying insecurity. It’s easy to see why these people don’t find a way in life, why they don’t find a job. If you don’t have that basic confidence in your own capabilities, it’s really tough to do anything.
“I started this whole project with the idea of bringing awareness, [and] with the idea of giving homeless people a face and a voice. We see homeless people or perceive them every day, but we don’t really meet any of them ever in our daily interactions. My goal was to basically have them step forward and talk about their life and explain why they are homeless.”
“I’m actually a cosmetologist and I prostitute when I can or escort or whatever ‘cause I know the evening and I know how to do night clubs. Even if it doesn’t have to do with sex, I know how to be a partner and just have a good time and I can handle my drinks and whatever else. You know what I mean? And every gentleman needs a lady.”
“It depends on how they do it [meth]. Now somebody that shoots it in the vein can basically…it can last up to three days to four days and…I’m talking about you’re going on for days…No sleep for three days. That's how I did my paralegal work. I would shoot it. I would shoot it and then basically I’d stay up working on a case. I had a full-time job at a law firm and then I was going to movie sets and then basically I was doing porn on the side. That's what I love. I wanna get back into it right now. So basically I am on a website right now, though as an escort. I’m working my way back into it.”
“I made some poor choices. I suffer from depression. And so I had things going on in my life and I got really depressed and I pretty much gave up from that. And now I'm rebuilding as you could say. But it's helping me re-find myself. It's going pretty good. I'm learning a lot of new things that I didn't know before, which is kind of cool considering I'm 40 and I started transitioning in 2002. All my life I knew I was different. I grew up in a small town where I had to pretend that I was just like everybody else, but I knew I was different and when I turned actually 21 that’s when I started doing research to figure out what I was supposed to be, like what the term was, what I was feeling…if anybody else felt like that, and really got comfortable with the idea that I was a woman. Even after the transition, my whole thing has always been acceptance and now it’s like I got the acceptance, the respect and everything but I'm trying to figure out who I am and what I wanna do in my life.”
“I’m 19. I turned 19 November 13th. I’ve been out here on and off for four years ‘cause I used to run away from a group home. I’m working on getting my housing so I might be off the street soon…I have a dog too that they’re gonna allow me to have because he’s a service animal. He’s a service animal for emotional support — depression and anxiety. I kinda developed depression just being out here on the streets and being alone all the time…It’s kinda just something that I developed with me because I stopped eating and I stopped sleeping because I was so scared before I got my dog.”
"I have been on heroin 25 years. I got a lot of other habits too so…Ohh, I’m so blessed, yeah. I’ve had full-blown… I was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in 1991. Yeah. God, whatever it is, he, she... I don’t have any answers for us, but there’s something there. I don’t believe in some ultimate control or… I don’t see any reason why I’m here after all that. I’ve had wonderful health too. I run several miles a day."
“I went to a recruiter’s meeting today. I work at the LGBT center now, I do outreach, sexual awareness, and anything else. I get sent out to the streets teaching, educating; peer mentor, they call it. I live on the streets because my family doesn’t agree with me being gay."
"As far as my history goes, I was a 24-year member of the motion picture industry. And when that went south I wound up working at a couple companies that went in Chapter 11. Then I wound up working as an executive accountant for a company that was selling computer software. One of their employees did something wrong, I don’t know what the real deal was but the Federal Trade Commission came in and shut the place down. So then I ended up trying to get any kind of little part-time job I can get to try to keep me above water. And I wound up working for a day laborer company and after a couple of months I wound up getting in an accident and that’s how I became blind. I took about a 40-foot fall through a hole in the floor that was unmarked or not barricaded. I’m on disability. I know that the homeless situation in our city is, in our country, is over the top and there is just not enough housing for everyone. I understand that. However, I know someone in a disabled situation, such as myself, that I can’t afford to be out here on the street. I have already been a victim of violent crime several times.”
"I stay with my [street] family. I was 13 when I first came out here. I was entered into Hollywood by a pimp, human trafficking. A pimp bought me and they pretty much brought me out here. I did drugs back then, so it was like I was already hooked on methamphetamine since 9 when they were drugging me up …
"At 9 I was forced to have sex with people by my own family. My uncle put me in human trafficking. My parents were split — North Carolina. My dad never spent time with us. The last time I seen him I was 7. He came one time and it was my birthday but he only spent maybe 10 minutes with me, that was the last time I seen him. My mom is an alcoholic. She gets plastered drunk until she falls asleep. She was no help. They didn’t believe me about my uncle until one of my nieces came up missing and my cousin found her with him in an abandoned building. It happened.
"Then I got laid off from my telemarketing job. My manager liked women very much where it’s OK for him to touch on females. And what happened to me in my past, I’m not a touchy person. So right when he touched me, I kind of flipped out a little bit and they fired me. I did telemarketing for five years but three of the years I was homeless.
"Section 8 [rental assistance] has quite a long waiting list. I have been waiting for five years, I’ve been out here for 16 years. The Step Up program is mental health and drug use and I’ve been sober seven years. I am 26."
“I have been living on the street about four months. Before I was in the hospital. They said, ‘Instead of letting you go for your charges of vandalism, we believe you require psychological treatment and evaluation.' And, before I left, I told them [the judge], ‘You need a psychological evaluation and to be sodomized, fuck you.' And they took me out. They took me to a mental hospital. I stayed there for two years and seven months.”
“My girlfriend is currently pregnant. I’ve called many housing programs before and it's all the run-around with…they either say, ‘Well, you have to come back tomorrow or come back some other day or earlier or you have to call in advance or there’s a waiting list.' And then there’s been times where one program would refer us to another program and that program would say, ‘Well now we’re full, you can check out this program.’ Which is just literally the program that referred us to that program. It’s all just the same thing over and over.
"I ended up living on the street when I turned 18. My mom said, ‘Son, you have to go. Your sister is getting old, I need my privacy, she needs hers, your brothers have all left…’ and she’s kicking my brother and his wife and his two kids out to. It was a two-bedroom house. It’s small. She needs her privacy. I understand. I love my little sister and I’d rather have her somewhere to stay than me…
"Me and my girlfriend work when we can. So I mean we try to save up as much as we can and when we need to eat, we eat. Work our way up. At night what we do is we sleep at a church, a well-lit area. And sometimes, if we have to, we ride the bus all night, sleep on the bus if it’s too cold. We’ve been together for a year and a little more than a half already. I’m happy. And she’s having my kid so… I love her and I already love my little kid. We stay away from drugs, I’ve seen what it does to people. I used to have a friend who was on meth. My girlfriend works at a KFC. Yeah. She works minimum wage. She got promoted about a year ago to supervisor. So they bumped her up to ten [dollars an hour].”
"As a street mom I basically, I try to, like, steer them on the right path, try to keep ‘em as much out of harm's way as possible. ‘Cause I came out to the streets when I was really, really young. I ran away. I’m trying to keep them from bumping their heads like I did. You know what I mean? Any way I can...
"It sucks when I lose one. I think over the years I probably lost only four of them. One went to prison because his friend stabbed a lady on Hollywood Boulevard. One got murdered. The other one, she moved away and married a guy who was very abusive and he ended up beating her to death. And I had one son that got killed in a car crash. A drunk driver hit him. But out of all the ones that I raised so far, which is like 26 altogether so far, 13 of them went back to school, one is studying to be a crime scene investigator, an analyst. She’s amazing. She was my problem child but now she’s got two kids of her own, she’s going to college in Westwood.”
“I started gang banging at 12 years old. I started doing this stuff right here and really getting involved in the streets of L.A. I got shot when I was 15 and the bullet came out here and came out there. And then I lost two brothers in gang banging. They got shot and killed. I got them tattooed right here, rest in peace. I had a twin brother and I had an older brother who got murdered out here so I put them out here on my hand and then I got my ink to signify my stages of life.
"I been to the penitentiary already, you know what I mean? And now I just dress like a regular guy and just grow my hair out and don’t shave my head. ‘Cause I have a big '1-3' on my chest. You know what I mean? I was from a gang called Watts Varrio Grape Street in Watts. When I went to prison, I ran with the southerners so obviously I have a '1-3' to signify my membership.
"Jail gives you a lot of alliances and connections, it's really like a big crime school. It ain’t hard to get nothing if you put your mind to it. I'm gonna keep it real. Excuses are like assholes, everybody has one and they stink. That's why when they're like, ‘How did you get out of the gang?’ I just left, dude. I could go back, sure. But out of sight, out of mind. So when people go, 'Oh, I can't get out, they'll come look for me.’ That's a lie. Nobody's gonna leave the 'hood to come look for you. They're over there. You're over here. That's the best part about being an American."
"I have PTSD from Desert Storm. I got shot over there, came back, and it’s like the government basically forgot I was here, that I fought for my country. And that sucks. It’s not fair. Society tends to look down on people who are homeless without knowing the full scale of why they’re homeless. And it’s hard. Because they’re sitting there pointing fingers at us when they have no reason to. We’re no different than anybody else, we just fall on hard times.”
“From like second grade all the way until I graduated from high school, I was in long-term foster home with three African-American women from Texas. They were elderly. There was always a dozen kids at a time there so you didn’t get like the attention that a normal kid would get. I have one blood brother and one blood sister. She has two kids. My niece and nephew, they are wonderful kids. I see them whenever I can, whenever I have some money to buy them something or do something for them, rather than just showing up like Charlie the bum with nothing and saying, ‘Hey, I’m just gonna hang out for a day or two.'"
“I am 19 and I have been on the streets two or three months. My family had a fight and they kicked me out for being trans… I’m not worried about it because I’m still gonna do me and be me and no one is gonna change me.”
Follow Martin Schoeller in Instagram here.