Old School wouldn't let Joanna Biondolillo sit on the sidewalk. Old School, as he's known around the Skid Row area of Los Angeles, told Biondolillo that he was a gentleman and he'd be the one sitting on the concrete. He gave her his folding chair as they talked.
"Of all the people he had to be one of the coolest," Biondolillo says.
Old School is one of hundreds of people that Biondolillo photographed last year. For most of 2017 she traveled to cities across the United States hearing the stories of people who for whatever reason found themselves dealing with homelessness. Between landscape and tourism photography jobs, she saved money to go take these portraits of people and to find out their stories. Now that work will be on display at the Saul Alexander Gallery in CCPL's Main Library with the When I Was A Child exhibit.
Old School told Biondolillo that when he was 13 years old, his mother was paralyzed by a stroke. With no one else to look after them, Old School, then called Brian, knew that he and his brothers would be put into foster care and broken up if they didn't make it on their own. So when they needed food, a young Old School went to the grocery store, took four bags, filled them with food, and walked out.
"I said, 'It sounds like you were a clever kid,'" Biondolillo recalls. "He said, 'I was a clever kid, but then the rent came due and I stole to pay the rent.' He made it through high school but got caught up with stealing. He ended up getting arrested. Here's a 13 year old trying to keep his family together in a time and place when we didn't have a lot of resources to help."
And Old School was just one of many.
"I walked up to whoever I thought that I knew was homeless," Biondolillo explains, "and I said, 'Hi. I'm Joanna. I'm from Charleston, and I'm trying to gather a photo documentary on homelessness in America. Do you got a few minutes? I said that so many times. ... Nine times out of 10 they would talk to me."
She wants When I Was A Child, in part, to dispel the myths that surround people who find themselves on the streets.
"The gold standard for ignorance is that if you give a homeless person money they're going to buy drugs and alcohol with it," Biondolillo says.
When she gave cash, she says that the homeless individuals bought toilet paper, bus passes, food and water, did laundry, or stayed in shelters. She's not naive enough to think staples were the only thing some individuals got, but her experience proved different than the preconception.
"Buying toilet paper? I wouldn't have given that a thought," Biondolillo says. "One person wanted a cheeseburger. One person wanted to go to Chick-fil-a. One person, their shoes got stolen. ... One gentlemen wanted a Starbucks card to get coffee in the morning."
Biondolillo spoke with a man in Austin, Texas on a hundred degree day. He wanted water. She didn't have any, so she gave him some money, and he went to the convenience store.
"He comes back and pats me on a shoulder and says, 'Here, I bought you one too,'" Biodolillo recalls. "It's 103 degrees and I gave him enough money to buy a couple bottles of water and he comes back and gives me one too."
In Chicago Biondolillo met a woman named Mandy. Mandy left an abusive husband who tried to strangle her. After a hospital stay Mandy refused to go back to her abuser. When Biondolillo photographed Mandy, she recalled how others act towards her.
"She said to me, 'People walk by me and say to get a job. I've tried. The only clothes I have, I've got on. I don't have a shower. It's hard to stay clean,'" Biondolillo remembers. "She said the hardest part after trying to stay physically safe is to get enough to eat, and she said, and I quote, 'The restaurants throw perfectly good food away. I know when some of them do that. I try to get to it before the rats do.' That has haunted me."
Edwin in New York was in his third year of remission from non-hodgkin's lymphoma when Biondolillo met him. The illness took everything. He wondered about the only family he knew, his brother — whether he was alive or not.
"The whole goal here [with the exhibit] is to educate," Biondolillo says. "I want people to understand this could be any one of us. Edwin put it perfectly. He said to me, 'The resources you have, I don't have.'"