This project is a visual ethnography photographic study of homeless camps in the Front Range urban corridor of Colorado from an archaeological perspective. It primarily focuses on the areas immediately surrounding Denver such as Arvada, Aurora, Commerce City, Englewood, Lakewood, Thornton, Wheat Ridge, and Westminster. I first encountered homeless camps during archaeological surveys of urban areas in the late 1990s. Over the last three years homelessness has exploded, and traces of camps can be found in a variety of public lands. For the first two years of the project, I focused my efforts on the material culture of abandoned camps. As I explored the abandoned camps, I also began to meet a number of homeless individuals and asked them if they would like to be photographed for this project and tell me their stories. Since photography has been my primary means of documentation, I have sought to portray these people and places in a combined visual ethnography and artist fashion. As an archaeologist and anthropologist, I’m interested in what these sites can tell us about human behavior and the human condition. Some of the primary themes I’ve identified include geographic location, personal mobility, camp physical characteristics, risk factors, and community. The project is structured around these themes.
Homelessness is a serious social issue, particularly in times of great economic disparity between the rich and the poor. Additionally, homelessness does not discriminate, it can happen to anyone, and it affects everyone. It does not recognize sex, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, etc. Part of my inspiration for starting the Traces of Home project came from the fact that after being unexpectedly laid-off from work, our family was struggling economically, and we received several forms of public assistance. We obtained much of our food from food banks, and I met many folks who were even worse off than us. I realized that we were perilously close to not being able to pay for food and shelter. When I started back to work doing archaeological surveys and encountering homeless camps, it was suddenly more personal. Before formally starting to document the camps, I researched ethics guidelines from the American Anthropological Association and recalled my basic ethnographic training. I also met with staff from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless to get advice on protocol. I carefully considered how to conduct my project in a respectful and sensitive fashion, and even more with whether or not to share it in a fully public format (i.e. my recent exhibit at 40 West Gallery in March of 2019). It took prodding by a number of friends and associates to do the exhibit.
With respect to the exhibit at 40 West Gallery, I would like to thank my co-curator Gary Reed for his vision and support, I would also like to thank Mark Sink and Denver Month of Photography for the encouragement to bring this body of work to a public forum. Thanks to Greg Osborne for designing the graphics, and to Reed Art & Imaging for printing all of the outreach materials. Thanks to Liz Black and her staff/interns at the 40 West Arts District. Thanks to the Action Center of Lakewood County for coming out on March 21st to the gallery to talk about the valuable services they provide to the community, including help for the homeless. Thanks to the approximately 50 homeless folks who took the time to visit with me, especially the 15 who agreed to be photographed and share their stories. And finally thanks to my wife and children for their continuing support and sacrifice that has allowed me to undertake this project. This project will continue, but I'm a bit emotionally burnt out and need a break. I have plans to work more with the Action Center as well as other non-profit groups helping the homeless, as well as several university programs who are interested in the topic.
As a means of sharing the stories from the sites I have visited and the people who I have met, I've created a Facebook Community page. Please click on the link below to visit.