“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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