CASTLETON — A university professor is trying to shed light on adolescent and teenage homelessness by inviting anyone aged 14-19 who live in non-permanent housing to take photographs of their lives and experiences for a research project.
In addition to teaching at Castleton University, Social Work Program Director Dr. Michael Reeves sits on the board of directors for the Center for the Prevention of Homelessness, seeing first-hand how people of all ages are affected by impermanent housing.
The group with the fewest resources, Reeves said, are the barely and soon-to-be legal teenagers in middle school, high school and early college, a group he’s inviting to tell their story through photographs.
“This is their original work,” Reeves said. “What they take pictures of is up to them. ... It could be an arm or a leg or even an earring that mom made.”
The project originated while Reeves was completing his dissertation at the Connecticut School of Social Work. He launched the project first in Rhode Island compiling photographs from adolescents without permanent housing to better understand the conditions and situations in which homeless teens found themselves.
This year Reeves brought the project to Castleton University, and hopes to recruit 15 people to document their lives through a camera lens that will be provided to them if they don’t have one already in partnership with the Mentor Connector program.
“This is not quantitative research,” Reeves said. “This is the kind of research where you want to tell a story. It’s a lived experience for homeless kids.”
The photographs taken and submitted will then be cropped as needed and displayed in a local gallery, with anonymous quotes and stories attached, Reeves said.
“If you’re couch surfing, or wondering where you are going to sleep tonight makes it difficult to focus on academics,” Reeves said. “Is there going to be a meal at dinner time? A lot of these kids don’t know what is going to happen.”
It’s only been three years since the PTA implemented systems measuring “precariously-housed youth,” and Reeves said Point In Time counts — homeless population head counts conducted on one random day in January — left major discrepancies and often reported low and inaccurate numbers.
Thus far in 2019, 40 homeless youth were recorded in Rutland younger than 24, with 32 of those children younger than 18, Reeves said.
“This is a population whose voices haven’t been heard,” Reeves said.
In his previous projects, Reeves said the main themes of the submitted photographs were personal connections, shelter, basic needs, warmth, food and safety in the homeless community.
Participants will be rewarded with a $10 gift card to a local restaurant and get to select two of the photographs they take in the three weeks allotted for project completion, with a hopeful gallery date of somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Reeves said.
After reaching out to one of the project’s researchers — all Castleton University students — participants will fill out a survey and talk about their situation before embarking on their three-week documentary mission.
At the end, the pictures will be group-reviewed with the other participants before deciding which pictures to show if they want to display it.
In addition to exposure and attention, Reeves said the greatest gift to Rutland’s homeless population would be the creation of a family homeless shelter, so families could be housed together, and children and teens could get the social connection with one another crucial to positive development and achieving a permanent housing situation.
“Friendships were more long term just in the time that they were in the shelter,” Reeves said of a family shelter in Rhode Island. “They were able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”