Mary Lou Uttermohlen

Structure Out Of Chaos: Shantytowns of America's Homeless
Location: New Orleans, LA
Nationality: American
Biography: I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in the boondocks of West Virginia. Being a country girl I developed a deep fascination for new people and what they are driven to create consciously or subconsciously. My photography feels... MORE
Public Story
Structure Out Of Chaos: Shantytowns of America's Homeless
Copyright MaryLou Uttermohlen 2023
Updated Apr 2017
Topics Activism, Animals, Children, Community, Documentary, Editorial, Environmental, homeless, Homelessness, Human Rights, Mental Illness, Oppression, Photography, Photojournalism, Portraiture, Poverty, shantytowns, Sorrow

Structure out of Chaos is a paradox of documenting the homeless in their homes. As a guest in various American shantytowns these images are mostly portraits meant to be respectful windows into their world. It is not another patheos on homelessness but a personal experience in communities with few visitors.

Politically there is a push between people trying to survive and others who want them to disappear or become "invisible." Regularly the camps are swept and authorities discard their belongings as trash forcing people to start over again with nothing. These sweeps throw people back into chaos until they reorganize and rebuild. The cycle is endless. Neither side ever wins for long. This is an endless game without victors.

In shantytowns like attracts like and people segregate to surround themselves with others they feel safe around. Leaders always emerge and the encampments self govern to protect the residents. For many there is a feeling of family and security.

The series is an agreement between the subject and the audience to have a private visual dialogue. The images aim to demonstrate the resourcefulness and creativity of people as they solve survival issues, decorate space and decide what is important to them. They demonstrate freewill and the power to make choices not afforded to them in structured social programs.

This project began in 1993 in Miami during the Pottinger Settlement. The ACLU was suing the city for arresting homeless people prior to public events. The presiding judge ruled that safe zones must be established where people could eat, sleep and bath in public without fear of arrest until social services could be offered. Since this was a federal case shantytowns sprung up around the country while the case was litigated. This project has been ongoing ever since.

In the twenty-four years of documenting this story numerous cities have passed laws criminalizing this population. There are anti panhandling laws yet shelters charge a fee to sleep in a bed. In many cities it is illegal to share food with homeless people without a permit.

In spite of new laws the key fact is that homelessness is not a crime. The new questions become "are the civil rights promised by our constitution extended to the homeless?" and "will there be funding for social services to aid and prevent this situation?

There are two types of homeless people. The first type has experienced an economic or personal disaster and pride will be their rapid catalyst out of their situation. The second type is the chronically homeless. These people have an issue preventing them from healing their circumstance. The conditions are usually mental illness, various addictions, health and legal problems.

Studies show that 90% of this population suffers from some form of mental illness. When the dysfunction prevents people from navigating the heathcare system many end up living on the streets self medicating with street drugs.

This story includes a camp of paroled sex offenders where the residents were required to wear leg monitors and check in under a bridge each night. The encampment known as "Bookville" was created by city government and resulted in another lawsuit with the city of Miami for civil rights violations again. Oddly enough, Bookville resulted from the work of Ron Book a lawyer who served on the Homeless Trust, which was the main organization for distributing funds for homeless services.

In the two decades of watching the rise and fall of shantytowns I am STILL dedicated to telling this story. The epidemic is still growing. The desire is to document more camps around the country to record the creativity and tenacity of people trying to survive the world, as they know it while authorities push to make them "invisible."

The intent is to use photography as a tool for social change by opening an informed dialogue about chronic homelessness in America. As we shift our awareness of this issue we can transform from criminalizing the victims to addressing the issues.

Unlike during the great depression this situation has little to do with housing and economics and everything to do with our unresolved social problems. Ignoring or criminalizing these issues is not a solution. Forcing people to keep moving and appear invisible does not fix it either. Until we understand these problems and how they are created we are doomed to continue repeating this cycle as the epidemic continues to grow.

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Structure Out Of Chaos:  Shantytowns of America's Homeless by MaryLou Uttermohlen
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