PORTLAND, Ore. — Lifelong journalist Julie Akins' mission is simple — take photos and learn the stories of the homeless. It's a project that has taken her to cities up and down the West Coast.
This week, Akins is in Portland.
Akins’ portraits are unfiltered, raw and real. Images range from a full-time college student working three jobs to a single mom with seven kids living out of a broken-down bus.
“I’m not trying to solve this problem,” Akins said. “Let me be clear about that because that’s not what I’m charged with doing.
“But I am trying to hear what people are saying and where that intersection exists between homeless people. What’s the common ground, so that we as communities can look at it, and people smarter than me can perhaps come up with solutions collectively,” she said.
Akins, a mother and grandmother who lives in Ashland, Oregon, has been covering homelessness on and off since the 1980s.
Recently she got tired of reading coverage that depicted the epidemic only at a local level without connecting the dots that link homeless people up and down the West Coast and across the country.
So, armed with an iPhone and a borrowed sedan, Akins set off. She traveled from Ashland to Eugene to Portland, where she has photographed the unsheltered and documented their stories, noticing that many of their experiences are linked with strikingly common threads.
“So many of the people I talked to are there because they got sick and then they couldn’t keep working,” Akins said. “They were already not making a lot of money, and then they were homeless. Or their rent was raised, and then they weren’t able to accommodate that.”
Akins said for many homeless people, it is as simple as being unable to recover from one mistake or misfortune.
“When I was young-ish, I could make a mistake and recover,” Akins said. “Now, you make a mistake, you may not recover. There is not a lot of benevolence in the system that we currently have, when you look at the cost of living and the salaries that people make.”
So far, Akins has racked up 50 photos and stories, uploading them on her website as she goes. She said her goal is to travel the coast, and collect 200.
She hopes to turn her work into a traveling art installation called “Understanding Homelessness.” Akins hopes to hit the road with her work by spring and bring the finished product back to the cities from where she gathered her stories.
“Most people aren't me. They don't just sidle up and sit on the sidewalk and start gabbing,” Akins said. “Most people walk by that and aren't sure what to do. So this is a template. They can look at it, read the stories, understand how people get where they get, read their faces, and it humanizes this issue rather than institutionalizing it.”