Prisoner with a Secret

By Melanie Correa

Prisoner with a Secret sheds light on the enduring homelessness crisis in New York City with photographs by artist Sharon Stepman. The exhibit was held in The People’s Forum, a community organization and café in midtown February 1 to March 6.

The images display people who are homeless and living outside or in unsafe spaces. Much like prisoners, the displaced people are trapped in a moment of pure uncertainty.

“I wanted to show their loneliness, their struggle and their mental health,” said Stepman. She spent time trying to dissolve or alter the features of the people she photographed.

“The only person that was delighted to have his image taken was James, that sat there for years before we began to speak,” she said. “He even asked me to take his photo and when he started doing CD’s I did the images for him.  He even offered to pay me if he had any sort of success.”

There were 62,679 homeless people, including 14,682 homeless families and 22,013 children, sleeping each night in the New York City municipal shelter system in January 2020, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. During the fiscal year 2019, 132,660 different homeless men, women, and children slept in the shelter system. There is no exact number for cases of individuals living on the street.

The Department of Homeless Services attributes the high number of  homeless to the fact that wages have not kept up with housing costs.  “It’s caused pain for millions and deep pain for thousands of people who have become homeless. You may see them in the line at the grocery store, or in the bank, or at work. And you may never know that at night they return to a shelter instead of a home. The department also says 70 percent of those in shelters are families.

“There is inhumanity in seeing these people and then seeing the high-rise buildings that very few people can afford to live in,” says Stepman.

Living in New York City, one is almost certain to encounter homeless individuals and families on their daily commute. Stepman started taking photographs to document the ongoing crisis many years ago, and even included images in a published book.

The People’s Forum serves as a movement incubator for grassroots organizations and individuals to connect and gather ideas for collective action.

“I felt almost guilty looking at photos of people who are homeless,” said Karen Cruz, who visited the exhibition. “But these are real people who deserve attention.”

Stepman is preparing for another book, which will be called “Ecco Homeless,” and her images will be featured in a “Homeless Around the World” series where she will show photos from New York City. Her work is aimed at raising awareness of the ongoing national homelessness crisis.

“We have to be able to help people like that,” she said. “How can you see them and not do anything?”











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