Crazy and Proud is the inside story of an invisible place, an inner-city shelter for transient, mentally-ill women. I am a white, middle-class man who was hired as a recreation worker to teach photography to this hidden population. Every day for a year, I took three subway transfers between my apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and what some would consider the belly of the beast of hopelessness.
This was not the first time I’d been drawn to social work, but I found pretty quickly that working at the shelter was not the experience I thought I’d signed on for. In 1999, while the news reported a war on drugs, a war in the Balkans, and a fight to uphold American values, I found myself embedded on the front lines of poverty, addiction, and prejudice. The shelter served as a way station in the crossfire. The women at the shelter were present without being accounted for, living among us without any viable means of support. They moved through this passage without a home or job or even the certainty their own minds could be trusted.
Before I became known for Twitch & Shout, a television documentary, and later my memoir of life with Tourette syndrome, I’d worked as a photojournalist, photography instructor, and sometime traveling companion and research assistant to Oliver Sacks. While not disenfranchised in the ways the women were, I did know something about being an outcast. My ticcing has made me the object of suspicion or ridicule for decades, and I suspect I became a photographer partly to find a way to stare right back at the people who were staring at me. When the money from my book advance ran out, I was desperate for a job but employers were not as desperate to hire someone who twitched and hooted. Work at the shelter was the only job I could get.
Of all the things these women needed, why would a photography teacher be on anyone’s list? I’m still not sure I have a good answer. I do know, however, that in the end many of the women found validation in seeing their perspectives documented and beautifully printed. In the pictures the women allowed me to take of them, they become visible, accounted for, and recognizable to themselves.
That year at the shelter taught me there is a big difference between tolerance and connection, and why connection is the touchstone of change. Since 1999 the problems of homelessness and mental illness have worsened. A recent study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, with data collected from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, reports that in 2005 there were 744,000 homeless in the United States. Many of those who are homeless and mentally ill land in jail. Prisons in the United States have become expensive holding pens or warehouses for mentally-ill people who cannot afford health insurance for the medication vital to their well-being.
Hurricane Katrina caused massive displacement for tens of thousands, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will result in many with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Compounding these problems, national debt accumulated from recent wars will make funds that could have been invested in rehabilitating homeless or mentally-ill people even harder to find. Years of recession and unemployment have hurt those who are most vulnerable even more so than average middle-class citizens. One of the most important lessons I learned during my year at the shelter was that the biggest threat to our security, as a culture, is the poverty and neglect that lie within our own country.
This project is the recipient of a Dutchess County Arts Council Individual Artists’ Fellowship and two Lisette Model Foundation grants.
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