For most of her life, Sharon Rodriguez looked away when she saw homeless people.
“I always saw them as somebody not to talk to, to stay away from, to ignore,” says Rodriguez, who lives in Olathe.
That changed a year and a half ago, when Rodriguez spotted a shelter made out of a tarp while walking in Ernie Miller Park. At first she thought it was a camp for Boy Scouts. Then she realized that the makeshift tent belonged to someone with nowhere else to go.
Rodriguez was shocked to find out that there were homeless people in Johnson County, the wealthiest county in Kansas. The median household income is $76,113, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures.
Once she opened her eyes to that reality, she started seeing them everywhere: the library, McDonald’s, downtown Overland Park. Another Census finding: 1 in 15 Johnson County residents lives below the poverty line.
Being a photographer, Rodriguez wanted others to see them, too, so she started approaching homeless individuals on the street to ask if she could talk to them and take their photo. Some rejected her offer, but many agreed to show their faces and share their stories.
The resulting images are on display through Dec. 23 at the Johnson County Library’s Lackman branch, 15345 W. 87th St. Parkway in Lenexa, as part of “Bear Witness,” a group exhibition across several branches that explores art as activism.
The striking black-and-white portraits were inspired by the Depression-era work of Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and Vivian Maier. All are of men, and some are accompanied by notes handwritten by Rodriguez, who identifies most subjects by first name only.
One photo shows Vince, a handsome 19-year-old with serious eyes who told Rodriguez he grew up in an affluent neighborhood but now lives in his Suburban. Another focuses on Jeremy, a clean-shaven veteran with a drinking problem who met Rodriguez at a laundromat.
“I got out of the Marines a month and a half ago,” he told her, “and now I’m sleeping in the woods.”
The oversized photos are displayed under polished glass, in crisp white mats and black frames. Many who see the show are surprised when they find out the subjects are homeless, says Rita Glick, assistant branch manager.
“You don’t usually see a 16-by-20-inch picture of a homeless person on a wall,” Glick says. “They don’t get that kind of respect, so you don’t expect it.”
The show shines a light on a persistent community need.
According to United Community Services of Johnson County, an organization that coordinates between local organizations that provide food and shelter to the homeless, about 2,250 homeless people sought services in Johnson County at some point in 2015.
Despite that figure, many residents don’t see poverty as an issue in their community, says Valorie Carson, community planning director at United Community Services. And those who do see homeless people might have a hard time relating to them.
“The primary misperception is that they’re significantly different from anyone else living in Johnson County,” Carson says.
Many homeless individuals have jobs but still can’t afford stable housing, she says. And because housing is more expensive and in high demand in Johnson County than in neighboring areas, it’s harder for those who lose a home through eviction to regain it.
Carson says she is constantly working to raise awareness of poverty and homelessness, because seeing and talking about the problem is the first step in solving it.
“As a culture, we spend a lot of time defining how we are different,” she says. “It would be valuable as a whole if we would spend a lot more time looking at how we are the same.”
Rodriguez, 70, took up photography in 2007, after she was laid off from her corporate IT job. She specialized in family photos — Rodriguez has nine grandchildren and nine great grandchildren — and serene images captured at local parks and arboretums.
For Rodriguez, photography isn’t just a creative outlet. It’s a form of meditation.
“I let the rest of the world go by and focus on what I’m shooting,” she says.
A year and a half ago — at around the same time she noticed the camp in Ernie Miller Park — she started searching for a project with deeper meaning.
“I was feeling pretty invisible as a senior,” she says. “I believe we’re not seen or heard as much by young people. We’re kind of shoved in a corner.”
When she started talking to homeless people, they told her they felt that way, too.
Rodriguez quickly learned how to make them comfortable around her. She wore casual clothing to interviews and, instead of using a tape recorder, wrote notes by hand in a cranberry composition notebook.
She started carrying clothes and food with her so she could give them to people on the street. She left hats and gloves at the edge of the woods by her house, and volunteered to help feed hungry Johnson County residents at two Olathe churches known for outreach work, New Hope and Grace United Methodist Church.
Occasionally, Rodriguez meets a photography subject at one of those churches. Recently, while working at Grace United Methodist Church’s Center of Grace, she connected with a woman named Randi who lives with her husband, Lester, in a burgundy Pontiac Grand Am littered with possessions.
Randi said in a phone interview that she and Lester lost their home after losing their jobs and being crushed by a mountain of medical bills related to an accident she had two years ago.
“People think that this is a choice,” she said. “Do you think it’s fun to wake up and not know where you’re going to get gas money, or what you’re going to eat?”
Randi said she used to donate to organizations that help the homeless and never expected to be in that position herself. She agreed to be photographed by Rodriguez because “you can tell that she’s a person who cares.”
“If I could get one person to listen, then it would be worth it,” Randi said.
There are a handful of shelters in Johnson County primarily for households with children or victims of domestic violence, Carson says. For adults, particularly males, it’s harder to find help locally. That’s why many travel to City Union Mission in Kansas City or Shalom House in Kansas City, Kan.
Rodriguez has photographed three veterans struggling with PTSD. Joe, who recently returned from Afghanistan, sticks out in her mind. He told her he couldn’t sleep at night without hearing bombs or seeing his friends die.
“I just want to sleep,” he told her. “I’m so tired.”
During his session, Joe got emotional and turned his back on the camera. Rodriguez took photos of him as he smoked a cigarette.
Library visitors tend to gravitate to Howard, a Vietnam veteran who appears to look right through the lens of Rodriguez’s Nikon D5200 camera, eyebrows raised as if daring the viewer to stare back.
When Rodriguez first met Howard, he was wearing jeans and a ratty shirt. He showed up to his photo shoot in a blazer and rumpled string bow tie, his hair slicked to one side.
During the short photo shoot — most sessions last half an hour — Howard confided that he had problems with relationships because “he gets angry around people and intimidates them.” He also showed a soft side.
“At the end of the interview session he walked me to my car and made sure I had my seat belt on,” Rodriguez says.
The photographer says it doesn’t scare her to approach strangers on the street, but a few friends worry about her safety. Rodriguez does have two boundaries: She doesn’t approach groups of men, and she never hands out money.
Nicole Emanuel, founder of Overland Park’s InterUrban ArtHouse, says “social activism requires that you trust people that we’re all told not to trust.”
Emanuel says the work done by activist artists such as Rodriguez highlights issues that would otherwise stay hidden.
“It’s important that the region understands the good, the bad, the fragile, the human — and embrace all of that so that we can work together toward the change that we all need,” Emanuel says.
Joseph Keehn II, who curated the “Bear Witness” exhibit for the Johnson County Library, says many residents who’ve seen the show have said that it opened their eyes to homelessness.
“It’s not just in the urban core of Kansas City,” Keehn says. “It’s also in the suburbs. They’re seeing something they didn’t see before. And once you know it’s happening, you can’t play the naive card.”
Rodriguez doesn’t offer a broad solution to homelessness. But she does know that on a personal level, connecting with individuals experiencing it has made her more open-minded and grateful for things she used to take for granted, such as a meal or a warm bed.
And instead of averting her eyes from the problem, she looks it right in the eye.
Homeless people “don’t need to be kicked to the curb,” she says. “They need a hand up.”
Although her show at the Lackman library ends soon, she’s working with the Olathe Public Library on another show in February. Eventually, she’d like to publish all her photos in a book about homeless people struggling to get by in Johnson County, home to multimillion-dollar houses and makeshift tents hidden in the woods.
Helping the homeless
These Johnson County organizations are among those that provide services to residents who have lost stable housing.
▪ Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, with locations at 333 E. Poplar in Olathe and 9806 W. 87th St. in Overland Park, CatholicCharitiesKS.org