“I thought it was a Boy Scout weekend.”
That was photographer Sharon Rodriguez’s initial reaction when she encountered a homeless camp near her Olathe residence in 2014.
Once she realized that homeless individuals were living under the tarps, Rodriguez had a lot of questions.
“Who are they, and why are they homeless?” she remembers thinking. “That started the journey of me finding out more.”
That journey ultimately led to Rodriguez’s second book, "Homeless, With Honor," a collection of photographs and handwritten stories documenting the experiences of transient persons in Johnson County.
The book presents the experiences of 14 individuals, with sections focusing on themes such as homeless camps and military veterans; one section is dedicated to following up on individuals featured in Rodriguez’s first book, "Homeless, Not Invisible," which was released last summer.
“It’s really important to me to put a face and story to a person who’s homeless,” says Rodriguez, whose photography has also been featured in exhibitions at the Johnson County Library and Mattie Rhodes Center. “I wanted to invite the viewer of the photograph into the story.”
While photographing people for this book, Rodriguez also encouraged them to hand-write their own stories. She says she hopes the handwriting will push viewers to slow down and pay closer attention.
“It was more inviting than a typed page,” she says. “They would have to take time to read it.”
In particular, Rodriguez recalls being moved by the story of one military veteran.
“He had been released from the VA hospital on one of the coldest nights of the winter,” she says. A snowstorm had prevented his brother and sister from traveling from another state to bring him back home.
“It really made him nervous to think about being homeless. And he really appreciated talking to me about what had happened.”
After he spent several days in a shelter, a local service organization bought him a ticket home.
As the wealthiest county in Kansas, Johnson County might seem an unlikely place to fine many homeless people. But the number of unsheltered individuals in the county has increased this year.
“We have a gross lack of affordable and accessible housing in Johnson County,” says Vicki Dercher, the executive director of the Johnson County Interfaith Hospitality Network. “We have a great homeless population in Johnson County.”
“The service organization community is overwhelmed because the amount of homeless people is growing,” adds Rodriguez.
She suggests that Johnson County residents offer small gestures of support to their homeless neighbors.
“I tell people to smile, to carry a jar of peanut butter in their car or a jug of water or a blanket,” she says.
Dercher also encourages people to consider donating their time and energy.
“We’re always looking for more volunteers,” she notes.
Rodriguez says hopes her ongoing work will increase awareness of homelessness in Johnson County.
“I’ve learned to keep telling the story,” she says, “instead of letting it drop.”
“Homeless, With Honor” book release, 6 p.m. Thursday, August 23, at InterUrban ArtHouse, 8001 Newton St., Overland Park, Kansas, 66204.