Documenting Stories of Homelessness

A new project seeks to share the experiences of Americans in shelters and on the street.

A homeless man folds up his bedding in the morning at the Harrington Hall homeless shelter in Cranston, Rhode Island on November 18, 2009.  (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

According to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than half a million Americans are homeless on any given night. HUD counted 1.5 million people who used a shelter in 2014, and then there are those who are crashing at a friend’s house or sleeping on the street.

Those big numbers point to the scale of the problem nationally, especially in cities. But often homelessness can seem like an issue that’s too big to deal with on an individual level, something that’s hard to reconcile with daily life. It’s for this reason that Justin Doering, a media-studies student in Idaho who recently graduated from Boise State University, started a project aimed at bridging the gap between those big numbers and real-life stories of homeless Americans.

“No one talks to these people … I used to just try to avoid eye contact with them,” says Doering. “But these are people that no one really knows anything about and are choosing to ignore. So I figured their stories are a really great one to tell.”

Doering’s project, 50 Sandwiches, which he’s currently raising money for on Kickstarter, involves him taking homeless Americans out for a meal and encouraging them to tell their stories. “The plan is to toss the mattress in the van and travel the country to try to capture the experiences and stories behind the homeless population in the United States to show that there isn’t just one kind of homelessness,” says Doering.

He’s been thinking about this project since he was a teenager, and believes that there’s a stereotype of homelessness that he hopes the stories he collects will help dispel. The project was partly inspired by Humans of New York, a project that captures the revelatory stories of regular people.

So far, Doering has interviewed 15 homeless people he’s met at shelters. He says that he’s been struck by how “incredibly unique and distinct” each of their stories are, and that transcribing them “has been emotional.” Encouragingly, no one has said no to him yet. “I think what I've found most interesting is their resilience to keep contributing to society and keep trying to get out [of homelessness],” says Doering.