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Bill Kirby: Homelessness through a photographer’s lens

Dona Marlowe once found herself looking the other way when passing a homeless man or woman along the city streets. And then the photographer took it upon herself to look them in the eye and into their hearts.

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Most of us tuck ourselves snuggly in the warmth and comfort of our beds each night with visions of a new day to break at sunrise.  

Most of us.  

Not all of us. 

“Just last week somebody died under a bridge,” Courtney Banks-McLaughlin was reminding her fellow Fayetteville City Council members about the homeless population that she passionately describes as a “crisis” in this community.  

She spoke from a compassionate heart, and the councilwoman’s words lead us to Dona Marlowe, the photographer who has seen the plight of the homeless firsthand in this community. 

“These images must be seen to be felt,” Marlowe says about “I AM SOMEBODY– Faces of Homelessness,” her photographic exhibit that opened Monday at the Arts Council of Fayetteville-Cumberland County downtown and tells the story of those in this community with no place to call home.  

They are isolated from most of us. They are often forgotten and disenfranchised and faceless, although most of us have seen them. We’ve seen them hanging out along Green Street with their belongings in grocery and drugstore carts. We’ve seen them in the nooks along Hay Street businesses and sheltering themselves from the rain and the cold. We’ve seen the homeless woman who once spent her Christmas Eves bundled up on a serene evening under the Market House holiday tree. 

You’ll find them gathered under the bridge along Grove Street, and once they called a thicket of pines home near Cross Creek Mall and in hide-a-ways along Skibo Road. We’ve seen them living out of old vehicles across from the Headquarters Library downtown.  

Dona Marlowe knows them, too.  

She knows them by name. 

She knows their life stories, and how homelessness has become their way of life. She came to know Charles, a poet who came to tears when he saw his photograph overlaid on one of his hand-written poems. They call him Papa Smurf. He has lived on the streets of the city for more days and nights than he cares to count, and his wife was with him until her recent death. She came to know William, the proud Army veteran who lives under a bridge he calls home. 

‘When I went to sleep’ 

Marlowe will tell you she has seen her share of homeless in her 23 years in Fayetteville as a massage therapist, and often, like some of us, looked the other way. But not that December afternoon in 2019, when the skinny little homeless man at the intersection of Skibo and Raeford roads caught her eye before she drove away.  

“I couldn’t let go of the image of this man,” she says. “He was in the middle of the median. He haunted me. When I went to sleep, I would wonder about him. I wondered if he had eaten.” 

An amateur photographer, Marlowe enrolled at Fayetteville Technical Community College to hone her skills under the instruction of Tony Wooten. 

“I had gotten back into photography really hard,” Marlowe says. “I feel like I was inspired to do this. I felt God had put this on my heart. I started taking classes with Tony Wooten at FTCC.” 

Marlowe says she had interacted with homeless women when she volunteered with Connections of Cumberland County, and provided massage therapy at the center that serves women and children who are either homeless or at risk of homelessness.  

I cried every time,” says Marlow, now a Connections of Cumberland County board member. “I’m safe, warm and have something to eat. I can’t imagine how hard their lives are.” 

‘They are just like us’

With a $1,000 Arts Council Project Support Grant, camera over her shoulder and full of inspiration, Marlowe set out in April of 2021 with the help of Stacey Buckner of  Off-Road Outreach for homeless veterans and Bill Ramsey, a friend to the homeless they call Father Bill,  the “I AM SOMEBODY– Faces of Homelessness” was about to become a reality.  

“Stacey talked to the people first to see if they were open to it and to be respectful,” Marlowe says. “She told them about my project. I think they felt I wanted to represent and treat them well and be respectful. My goal was a gallery show. So I applied for a mini-grant from the Arts Council, and got $2,000 more.” 

Marlowe, with Buckner’s assistance, first met Keith, a homeless man with mental health challenges and living off of Bragg Boulevard. 

“We just developed a rapport with Keith,” Marlowe says. “He had been in a group home. He had been asked to leave after having an angry episode. He has a beautiful smile and he opened up to me.” 

She would meet Charles.  

“He said this is the year he wants to get off the streets,” Marlowe says. “Stacey said she has known him a long time, and he had never said that.” 

She would meet Chris. She would meet Steve. She would meet William, who was living near the Martin Luther King Jr. exit near Bragg Boulevard. And homeless women to include Jessica, Janice, Tracy and Maria. 

In all, Marlowe would photograph 15 homeless men and women – just 15 of whom Marlowe believes are among the 700-plus, including children, who are living in this community without a roof over their heads. 

“They are just like us,” she says. “There are many reasons to become homeless. It can be that your car breaks down and you don’t have the money to get it fixed. You take a bus and you are late for work and get fired. Or you tried to leave an abusive marriage with your child. You are living in a car trying to hide from him.”

 Marlowe believes that perhaps we should ask these questions when addressing the homeless community: 

"How can we as a community be co-creators in finding the solution to this problem?’’ she says. “How can we engage our unhoused neighbors to take the action steps needed to support permanent, safe housing?  How can we support them as they invest in their own solutions?" 

A reception was held Friday evening at the Arts Council, where community leaders viewed “I AM SOMEBODY – Faces of Homelessness.” Among those there were Charles and Chris, who also came Monday for a first look at Marlowe’s work.  

“He found me on Facebook and messaged me,” Marlowe says. “He thanked me and was moved to tears.”  

 Epilogue 

“I AM SOMEBODY – Faces of Homelessness” will remain on exhibit until Jan. 22.  Her photographs will be on sale for $400 each, which Marlowe says enables her to “give back” to the organizations that helped make her project possible.  

“The Arts Council would receive the standard gallery fee, which is 30% of the price,” she says. “I will then donate 50% of the proceeds to Off-Road Outreach and use the remaining  50% to re-create the photograph for use in future events.”  

For Marlowe, who, like so many of us once looked the other way, it has been a cathartic experience.  

“I’ve learned they have dreams and hopes,” she says. “They are kind and funny. They want to be seen. I have been so struck. It’s like a longing that said, ‘You are somebody.’ And to be validated. It’s something I will never forget. It’s been an honor meeting them and them trusting me to take their portraits. I hope I’m just getting started.” 

Some, like Courtney Banks-McLaughlin, the city councilwoman, describe homelessness as a crisis in this community. 

No argument from the heart of a photographer. 

“It is a crisis,” Dona Marlowe says, “if you are homeless.” 

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at billkirby49@gmail.com or 910-624-1961.  

 

Fayetteville, Dona Marlowe, homelessness, exhibit, Arts Council, column

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