NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The photographers are young and most of them seem to be having the time of their lives. Most of the other subjects in the photos are older; even if they are sleeping you can tell they've been worn down by life. If they are posing, they don't seem to understand that they are a prop, the subject of the inside joke that's written all over the young people's faces.
These are the faces of a new and disturbing cultural trend: Selfies with the Homeless.
My brother, like most of us, was once a happy and carefree youth. When I think of snapshots of him, I think of Steve dancing in a home movie near the Christmas tree. His lanky body twisting and turning to an unknown beat on the silent film; his grin competes with the Christmas tree lights to brighten the room.
Another snapshot in time: Steve, at about 15, holding me down and tickling me until laughter turned to tears.
Then there's my brother, a handsome solider, kneeling beside me in my bedroom before he left for Vietnam, telling me not to cry -- his Army dress greens crisp and his hair freshly buzzed. I still remember the smell of his aftershave as I buried my face in his shoulder. He was smiling when he left, telling me he would write often and bring me back presents from faraway lands.
In those days, he too, was always smiling, always seeming to have the time of his life. That changed when he came home from war. He seemed much older than his 21 years.
The snapshots of my brother's youth were over.
"You don't want to see those," the police captain told me when I inquired about photographs taken at the scene of my brother's death. He was right. My last memories should not be of him lying in an alley, broken by mental illness and claimed by addiction.
My brother was found dead in such an alley in Fargo, N.D. on November 22, 1999, three decades almost to the day that he enlisted in the Army. Our mother, his next of kin, was not notified. Steve kept in touch with us, but we long realized we were not equipped to handle whatever demons he could not shake. We could only hope the services he received through the Veteran's Administration could one day help. Although Steve's pockets contained a wealth of information that would lead back to his family, it would be 14 months before I initiated calls that would lead us to learn of his fate.
It was determined Steve died of hyperthermia and alcohol poisoning. The funeral home did find his veteran's identification in his pocket and his body was turned over to the Veteran's Administration for burial in Ft. Snelling, Minn. Like so many homeless, our son, brother, uncle, nephew, cousin, a U.S. Army veteran, a human being, fell through the cracks of anonymity.
No one realized this man had a family who could no longer help him, but loved and mourned him nonetheless.
It's that very same dehumanization of the homeless through "selfies" taken with them that worries Michael Stoops, community organizer for the National Coalition of the Homeless in Washington, D.C.
"We track hate crimes and violence against the homeless and we started seeing these postings of selfies with the homeless a few weeks ago," said Stoops. "Really, it's beyond me how someone can come up with this kind of thing."
Stoops said that people who are doing the selfies are usually picking the most stereotypical image of the homeless. The people like my brother, who are single males, suffering from mental illness such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which they self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.
In fact, although this is the most stereotypical portrait of the homeless, it represents only about 30% of the homeless population in the United States. Stoops said that on any given night in America, 610,042 people are homeless; 130,515 of them are children.
Stoops said when people dehumanize other people in such a manner, it could lead to serious violence against the homeless.
"These young people are preying upon people who are vulnerable physically and emotionally, they are making fun of them and using them like a prop in the urban landscape," said Stoops. "If they are sleeping, it's like going into their bedroom. No one I know wants to be homeless, and they wouldn't want those photos taken and posted."
Neither would their families. The snapshots we have of them in our minds are like the photographers taking these selfies; they were young and at the prime of their lives. They too are human beings, not subjects to be mocked with an iPhone and duck face pose.
--Written by Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell for MainStreet