SALEM — Every day, they watch people walk by them without a word or a smile.
They’re young and homeless, struggling to survive on the streets in Harvard Square. But a Salem photographer’s portrait series plastered on the outside facade of a Cambridge building is getting them, and the need to end youth homelessness, noticed.
“This same photo that is beautiful is the same kid that society will walk by and ignore,” said Anthony Pira, 42, a graduate student in social work at Salem State University and creator of the “Invisible Faces” series.
The 3-by-4 1/2-foot portraits show members of Youth on Fire, a drop-in center on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, ironically adjacent to Harvard Law. The center provides showers, laundry services, food, warmth and prevention programs for homeless teens and young adults between the ages of 14 and 24.
“He just brings out this amazing ability to really capture the strength, power and resilience that our young people have,” said Ayala Livny, program manager for Youth on Fire. “For them to survive all the things they have survived and still be alive and around at 21, 22, 23 is an amazing accomplishment for them.”
Pira came up with the idea last March while interning for the National Association of Social Workers in Boston. He spent much of his time lobbying at the Statehouse for funding for particular bills, among them a bill on unaccompanied minor and youth homelessness. According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, close to 6,000 public high school students in the state are homeless and without family support.
That got him thinking about what else he might do, and he turned to his photography skills. The results have been rewarding.
“We have hundreds of photos of ourselves literally from the time we were born to today,” Pira said. “Every day I’m with these kids, they say they’ve never had a photo of themselves. ... When they see themselves on the camera, it blows them away. They feel so empowered by it. They feel so enriched by being able to see themselves.”
Amanda Bishop, 25, is one of the people in those portraits.
“People actually want to hear my story now. ... That never happened before,” said Bishop. “Nobody ever really took the time to say, ‘What’s your deal?’”
Bishop, who has previously lived in Salem, was working as a live-in personal care aide until her client’s death left her homeless 10 months ago.
“There’s some of us that are trying to make our situation better, not just stay in the same rut and do the same things every day,” said Bishop. “It’s not always a choice. It’s definitely not. Because if it was my choice, I would have had the 18 jobs I’ve applied to in the last 10 months. I would have had the apartment that I need. I would have had everything I needed if it was up for me to choose.”
Last month, she had her photograph taken again, but this time with her fiance, Sequonie “Q” Suarez, and her dog, Shadow.
Suarez, 22, a Boston native, has been homeless for about two years. He is working on getting his GED so he can apply for music school, and eventually he hopes to open his own studio.
“I love music, so I try to always apply my music to being homeless because, honestly, without my music I would probably go crazy,” he said. “This is hard to deal with. A lot of people don’t understand that.”
Both Pira and Livny said the “Invisible Faces” project has done more than shed light on the problem of youth homelessness.
“These kids now are taking on the advocacy work that I could never do,” Pira said. “We never had the vision that these kids could be advocates for homelessness.”
Pira’s project has also attracted the attention of the Center for Social Innovation, which approached him about incorporating “Invisible Faces” in a larger, nationwide initiative — the Outside In Project — that uses art as a vehicle to spur change. The collaboration also opens the door for additional grant funding. Pira continues to solicit donations and apply for grants to keep the project going.
Word has also spread on the North Shore about Pira’s project. He’s scheduled to present it to the Swampscott Rotary Club on Tuesday, Feb. 26. Pira hopes the connections will lead to a similar portrait series focusing on homeless youth on the North Shore.
Pira’s portraits will be on display in the Statehouse at the end of the month. He’s already considering other projects, including a portrait series on homeless youths who have jobs.
Take Alec Oarei, for example. The 22-year-old has been homeless on and off since March of last year. He works three jobs, but it’s not enough to pay rent.
“The good job I had is gone,” he said. “I can work a bunch of part-time jobs, but it’s not going to get me by.”
The reality that a nice person stocking shelves or behind a store counter might be homeless was eye-opening for Pira.
“I never realized how much it was going to change me,” he said of the project. “I never realized how it would impact how I look through the lens of a camera.”
- To support the “Invisible Faces” project, send checks to Youth on Fire, P.O. Box 380-827, Cambridge, MA 02238. Write “Invisible Faces” in the memo line. Donations are tax-deductible.
- For more information search for Invisible Faces on Facebook.
Cheryl Lecesse can be reached at 978-338-2664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.