Portraits of L.A.’s Homeless Influence City’s Strategy to Help Them

For the past three months, photographer Martin Schoeller—known for his tight portraits of President Barack Obama, Jay-Z, and anyone else you’ve heard of—has been posting pictures of homeless Los Angeles residents to his Instagram account. Each photo is captioned with a short interview or a quote from his subject and a request to donate to the #SycamoreandRomaine Campaign. (Read more about his subjects in our previous story.)

“I’ve been photographing people living on the streets for many years,” says Schoeller. “Actually, I was always fascinated by this theme.” At the same time, he says, “I always thought I should do something on Instagram—I just never knew what to do. I didn’t want to just post pictures of my own life.”

Instead, Schoeller decided to use his Instagram feed to “give people living on the street a voice and a face.”

“There’s about 600,000 people living without steady housing living in this country, and we never really meet them,” he says. “We see them every day on the subway or sitting on the street corner, but very few people actually end up talking to them and finding out why they’re on the street. So I thought it would be interesting to find out why are there so many people on the street, what goes on, what happened that they ended up living on the street.”

The #SycamoreandRomaine Campaign is named after the intersection where the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition serves food to the homeless out of a truck. Schoeller is hoping to raise $200,000 to give the GWHFC a permanent home.

So far, the publicity from Schoeller’s Instagram has helped the campaign raise $55,000, and it has motivated hundreds of people to inquire about volunteering. But it’s also inspired something that could reach beyond a single organization and change thousands of lives.

The L.A. City Council is considering approving a Comprehensive Homeless Strategy that could allocate $1.8 billion dollars to aid the homeless. To strengthen the case, officials illustrated the 200-page report with 12 full-page portraits from Schoeller’s Instagram. This means that when city officials read the plan, and contemplate whether to approve it, they will stare into the faces of the people it would help.

“That is the most dramatic effect so far of what Martin has done,” says Ted Landreth, co-founder of GWHFC. “This is hitting at the center of the political challenge in downtown Los Angeles today.”

A Human Side to the Story

An author of the report, Geoff Thompson, found Schoeller’s portraits through National Geographic’s Instagram. Thompson, who is a fellow at the L.A. Office of the City Administrative Officer, says that he contacted Schoeller to ask if he could use the photos in the report because he thought they would “add a human side to this story.”

“When we talk about homelessness in Los Angeles, we’re talking about tens of thousands of people,” Thompson says, adding that in January of last year, one study estimated that there were almost 26,000 homeless people in the city. “When you’re talking about numbers that large, it’s hard to remember that that’s actually 25,000—almost 26,000—individuals with individual stories, that all have their own reasons for why they’re living on the street.” Thompson thought that Schoeller’s photos could “provide an urgency and a human side to the report that text alone could not achieve.”

Among the report’s many recommendations is that the city find a dedicated funding source for its affordable housing trust fund. That would directly address one of the major problems the GWHFC has been dealing with for years: Although many of the city’s homeless have jobs, they are still unable to afford a place to live.

“We’re fighting two things at once,” says Landreth. “We’re fighting poverty, or a low-wage earner economic situation, and simultaneously—and ironically—the hottest real estate market ever. And consequently, landlords are very, very tough and demand all kinds of conditions of people that a homeless person couldn’t possibly meet.”

The Beauty of Human Engagement

One way that GWHFC has tried to address the issue is by scouring Craigslist for lower-cost housing ads, pouncing on them, then taking homeless clients to meet with the landlords so they can vouch for them.

“The main objective always is to find housing,” says Landreth. “People who are homeless have to find a place to live. Then you can help them reconstruct their lives. Everything else is a temporary measure, a Band-Aid.”

In this regard, Landreth is hopeful that the Comprehensive Homeless Strategy will be able to provide real, not just temporary, change.

“Politicians are awash in ideas but almost nothing has been done, and this Comprehensive Homeless Strategy,” he says, “is the hail mary pass of hail mary passes.”

Landreth is especially moved by the last line of the report’s acknowledgements, addressed to Schoeller, Ted Landreth, and GWHFC co-founder Penny Landreth, which reads: “We are thankful for their generosity and for reminding us of the beauty of human engagement.”

“The beauty of human engagement—what an amazing phrase!” says Ted Landreth. “That’s the solution to the problem. If everybody engaged with homeless people one-on-one in their communities, this’d be easy.”

To see more portraits and read more stories from this project, follow Martin on Instagram.

Learn more about the #SycamoreandRomaine Campaign here.

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