GRIPPING: Photographer captures ‘day in the life’ of a family living in a homeless shelter

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“Families are families, they function in much the same ways regardless of where you find them. This was something I figured out quickly as a Social Worker working with parents and children experiencing homelessness. It’s something that stuck with me long after I left that career and started to pursue another one as a photographer. That is really where the idea to document a typical ‘day in the life’ of a family living in a homeless shelter came from. I knew from my experience working with this population that the commonalties between parents in this situation and parents everywhere else were stronger than most people imagine.

Mother sitting on bed with husband laying in her lap and three kids playing on the floor of homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography
Mother leans over to kiss toddler on the lips in homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography
Father lays in bed writing on clipboard with toddler son standing beside him in homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography

The Henderson family of Fort Worth, Texas, allowed me to shadow them over several days as they went about their normal routine living in Union Gospel Mission of Tarrant County (one of the city’s largest and busiest shelters). The family of 6 lives in one room, about the size of your average bedroom. The room is at max capacity with their double bed, a set of bunk beds with a trundle, and a crib. There is limited room for storage so the kids’ toys and clothes are everywhere. The struggle to keep their space picked up is a familiar one to any parent with multiple kids but it is made more difficult here. Mom and Dad pick things up throughout the day but in such a small space there just isn’t anywhere to put it. The family uses one of the beds as extra storage space and the kids double up in another bed.

Mother sits on bed with husband laying head on her lap while their four children play on floor of homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography
Baby sits in crib with toys while older sister leans over touching her cheek in homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography
Father standing in homeless shelter home while son sits on bottom bunk behind him
Sara Liz Photography
Mother sweeps floor of homeless shelter while three kids lay on bottom bunk of bed
Sara Liz Photography

During my time with them I take in all that a typical day brings. The family is up early for breakfast, they eat their meals in a cafeteria with other shelter residents. Meals look much like dinner at any family’s home. There are negotiations over how much is ‘enough’ to earn dessert, there are spills, and at one point a back up peanut butter and jelly sandwich is brought in when someone doesn’t like what has been served. Mom and Dad sneak in bites while cutting up other people’s meat and blowing on food that is ‘too hot.’ It feels like the countless meals I’ve photographed other families eating. It feels like the countless meals I’ve served my three kids.

Baby girl in high chair reaching for food at homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography
Toddler sits at table eating at homeless shelter while someone salts her food
Sara Liz Photography
Mother crouches next to daughter in high chair blowing on her food in homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography
Daughter reaches across brother to grab food on mothers tray at homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography

Later the kids play on the shelter’s playground. It’s a nice respite from their room. Lots of families living here gather at the playground for that very reason. The kids play, and fight, and someone gets hurt and needs a reassuring hug. Again, I am struck by how much it is like any other playground anywhere.

Children climb on top of slide at homeless shelter playground
Sara Liz Photography
Father sits on bench hugging son at playground of homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography
Mother holds daughter while giving her a kiss at homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography
Daughter climbs up the inside of slide at homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography
Father smiles at toddler child who is sitting on play structure smiling at homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography

As I continued to spend time at the shelter, these types of scenes play out in front of me all the time. Of course there are some glaring differences. The families I usually photograph have more resources, more space, more freedom and options to do what they choose. They do not all live in one room, they do not eat breakfast at 5 a.m. so that the cafeteria can then be opened up to the people sleeping on the street outside for a hot meal. There are struggles I never thought about before this. Such as how to get everyone to sleep in one room, how to load up four kids to run downstairs to the laundry room and move a load of clothes into the dryer. There is no privacy or alone time here, especially for Mom. While Dad works nights and the older girls are at school, Mom cares for the younger two. She is with them 24/7.

Mother sits on bed while three children play next to her in room in homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography
Mother sits on bed with daughter who is leaning over the bed looking at baby sister in homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography
Son sits in mother's lap as he cries in their homeless shelter room
Sara Liz Photography
Mother sits doing infant's hair while she bites a bottle in homeless shelter room
Sara Liz Photography
Mother and daughter sit on bed coloring in homeless shelter room
Sara Liz Photography

But despite everything that is unique to parenting in a shelter I can’t help but relate to these parents in many ways. Raising children is hard. The struggles I see them dealing with on a day to day basis mirror many of the ones going on at my house. There is a hunt for a lost shoe when they should already be out the door. There is a fight between siblings over which T.V. show to watch. There are complaints of being hungry right after a meal has been eaten and pleading for just one more snack. The triumphs are much the same as well. There are hugs and kisses ‘just because,’ congratulations over a good grade, an older sibling reads to one of the younger ones, and the baby takes her first steps while I’m there.

Young boy sits on ground crying while he puts on sock in homeless shelter room
Sara Liz Photography
View from corner of homeless shelter room with baby in crib, three kids on bottom bunk, and mother on top bunk
Sara Liz Photography
Father stands watching something while son sits behind him on bottom bunk in homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography
Mother sits on bed tickling infant daughter while she laugh in homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography
Mother gives baby daughter a bath in homeless shelter room
Sara Liz Photography
Baby in bath looks up at mom ready to get out in homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography
Mother holds baby in towel who is looking over her shoulder at her reflection in mirror
Sara Liz Photography

Parenthood is a great equalizer. That is the idea that was driving this project in my head. I knew it was true, I had witnessed it in many forms both as a Social Worker and as a photographer. After following this family I am more sure of that than ever. It’s easy to see ‘them’ and ‘us.’ The reality is that most families are all dealing with a lot of the same things. We do it in different places, we have our own unique stories and circumstances, but in the end we are all just trying our best.”

Father lays down in bed holding baby daughter to chest in homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography
Mother looks over baby daughter lying in bed about to change her diaper in homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography
Mother sits with baby daughter in her lap forehead to forehead in homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography
Older sister draws on notebook while three younger siblings watch in homeless shelter
Sara Liz Photography
Husband and wife sit on bed of homeless shelter looking at each other
Sara Liz Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Sara Easter of Sara Liz Photography in Arlington, Texas. Submit your story here, and be sure to subscribe to our best love stories here.

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