By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The people who live here call it their "pier-and-beam house." They've lost a lot--all of their security, most of their sobriety, some of their sanity--but they still have a sense of humor. Or irony, at least. The "house" is the underbelly of a bridge on Northwest Highway, a slab of concrete never meant to be seen, much less slept on.
They like it here--James, Carl, Linda, sometimes Woodstock and Sundance, sometimes a few others. As far as homeless camps go, it's a pretty sweet deal. They have a few turtles and their beloved "duckies," a flock of two dozen or so swimming in the murky water that borders their camp--their "oceanfront," they call it. And it's close to work: The busy intersection where they nickel-and-dime their way to a new bottle, maybe even a hotel room, is just 15 yards away.
No one would have expected to find Hal Samples here. Not now. Maybe five years ago, back when his coke dealer was taking home so much of Samples' salary from Prestige Ford, the dealership might as well have cut out the middleman and bought an eight-ball for him. Back when he was crashing in a vacant apartment furnished with dog shit and little else--hoping no one would find him, praying someone would. Back when his body had given up on him, as had most of his friends and family. But not now, not after losing the drugs and alcohol, not after finding God. Yet, here he is.
But Samples is merely a guest today, not a resident.
"You got any pictures?" James asks. He's all bones and leather, a scraggly gray bush of a beard obscuring most of his face. Samples digs through his bag and finds a thick stack of 3-by-5 photo proofs. There are a handful of James and Carl in there, some of Linda and Woodstock, a few more of the camp. James and Carl squat together and flip through the stack slowly, elbowing each other when their familiar faces appear. Carl and James are a matched set, their beards and tent-pole limbs making them look like Civil War POWs. There's a great shot of them standing arm in arm in the scrub brush outside the camp. It's called "Best Friends."
Samples has gotten to know James and Carl and the others pretty well over the past five months. He's gotten to know plenty of homeless people during that time. Maybe 800, maybe more. He visits them at their improvised homes behind supermarkets and restaurants, under bridges like this one, in the soup kitchens and shelters. And he takes photographs of them, of where they live and how, sometimes letting them take their own.
Most of these people haven't seen a photograph of themselves in years, some in decades. Maybe, Samples figures, by seeing themselves in the camera's mirror, they can be inspired to stop drinking or to reconnect with their families or to do whatever it takes to get them back on the road to reality and off the street. It's happened before. To him.
"When I ended up at my aunt and uncle's house, they took a photograph of me," Samples says. This was almost four years ago, when the bottom fell out and he tumbled along with it. "And I looked like hell, man. That photograph I carried with me to the rehab out in Mabank. I pinned it to my corkboard above my twin bed. As I started putting meat back on my bones, working out and eating, it didn't look like the same person anymore. People would come in, 'Who's that?' So that was something that worked on me. It's working on these guys right now. Not all of them, but I can guarantee you it's working on some of them."
It seems as though it's working here. Sort of. The change in James and Carl is subtle but noticeable at their camp under the bridge. A few weeks ago, Samples dropped off a photo album he'd made for them; since then, they've cleaned up. Piled neatly by the entrance to the camp are a dozen or so garbage bags filled to the brim. James proudly waves his arm over the stack, making sure Samples sees what they've done.
Samples knows how far James and Carl have come--and how far they have to go. He's come a long way himself. Five months ago, Samples, 31, barely knew how to work his camera. Five years ago, he didn't know how to work his life. Now, his Hero to Zero project is putting both to work for him, using his photographs--and his life story--to raise money and awareness for a segment of the population that's invisible but unavoidable as he literally puts a face on the homeless problem. But he knows it takes more than that, so he's sitting through meetings, networking, speaking to whomever will listen, partnering with Central Dallas Ministries and A Friend Indeed Foundation, organizations that have the money and connections to do things he can't. He's becoming more involved in the day-to-day lives of the people he's met along the way: James and Carl, Bill and Red, Cindy and Shots, Hollywood. Samples' relationship with the homeless community--and the people who will decide its future--deepens by the day as he moves from behind the camera and into the frame.