The Poor, They Will Always Be With Us?

Review of The Tunnel – Photographic exhibit at the Cleveland for Contemporary Art

By Alex Grabtree

             I throw up my hands and give up.  Why are we doing this, because there are always going to be homeless people?  We see men sleeping on Superior Ave. in tents right across from the Police station in fact.  Until the police took action to protect the public, we saw many people sleeping in the old Ward Bakery.  There are hundreds of other abandoned buildings in Cleveland and East Cleveland that are the home to our friends and family members.  There are people sleeping in tunnels in the Broadway neighborhood in Cleveland, and we have heard stories of mentally ill people and hobos for centuries.  We have shantytowns that spring up throughout the decades.  Homelessness, specifically homeless people that sleep outside, are a part of the fabric of our society, and are we wasting time trying to change this situation?

            I visited a town from the 1800s in Edmonton that featured a display of a homeless man who lived in a tent and sold items to those who passed by right next to the Penny Arcade and down the street from the Masonic Temple and antique fire station.  Homelessness as part of a tourist attraction – who would have imagined?  In Cleveland, there is a new photographic exhibit called “The Tunnel” from New York artist Margaret Morton.  The story features images of homeless people who live in the dark underbelly of a subway tunnel.

            I was struck by the distance in these images.  The people featured in the photographs seemed to have a dark distant outlook.  The housing that they had chosen was expansive with no walls unlimited space – a dark industrial prairie.  They had fashioned tables and kitchens and the domestic life under the City without paying taxes and without locks.  They have a place for their stuff and are relatively unencumbered by the outside world, but why are they living in a tunnel?

            Some, or probably most have a mental illness, and they do not want to go into a shelter. They do not see group quarters as a place for them to get help for their paranoia, depression or their bipolar disorders.  Some see the abuse, exploitation and violence that exist in society and withdraw.  Others see daily struggles with materialism insane and withdraw to their own world.  While many see what none of the rest of us see and make up a world of their own.  So is there a solution?

            In the last issue of the Grapevine (see issue 46 at, Bill Hahn suggested “all you need is love” to turn things around.  Others argue that we just don’t have enough money thrown at this problem.  I am not convinced of either argument.  I think that it might involve both reasons, but most importantly the societal will to do whatever to get our friends to come in from the tunnels.  In this time of massive tax cuts where we cannot find anything to spend our money on so we selfishly return it to the populous to buy votes for the next election, can’t we resolve this problem?  Can’t we do whatever it takes to bring our cousins, friends and family in from the cold dark regions of isolation and despair?

            How about accepting mentally ill people on their own terms and providing them supportive housing at massive level?  We have seen these programs work on a small scale in many cities.  How about bringing these tunnel people back into our lives so they can contribute to the greater good?  Everyone who withdraws into abandoned railroad tunnels or under bridges is a loss for our society.  We have to recognize that all we have done to date has not worked.  If we do not make a change in the way we deal with our hardest to serve population, we will continue to lose more and more people.


Copyright NEOCH Homeless Grapevine  Issue 47 May-June 2001