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Caring is the most valuable currency for LA's homeless in new photo series

Walk or drive almost anywhere in L.A. and you might see tents, blankets, shopping carts — signs of the thousands of people who struggle with homelessness.

While many of us would just keep walking, or maybe offer some spare change, Hans Gutknecht has spent more than a year documenting people without a home. Gutknecht is a photographer with the Los Angeles Daily News, and his work has culminated in a new photo series called "I am...homeless."

The photographs are simple. The subjects are featured in black and white, holding up a whiteboard with a message. Sometimes, the messages are short and plain. Other times they're haunting. But they all resonate.

"I wanted to go out and give people that are living on the street an opportunity to share a message with a bigger audience," Gutknecht said, "to give people a little bit better understanding about them."

Personal messages

"I asked them to share a personal message," Gutknecht said, "or if they could say something to anyone about themselves, what would it be?"

Alyse Heggen, a 56-year-old in Houston, wrote about the constant judgment and poor treatment she received because she is homeless. Among the many other personal messages written on the whiteboard, there were overarching themes of family, religion and loneliness. 

"For the most part, people ignore them. Not everybody. You see people that walk by and they'll drop a dollar bill in their cup or they'll hand them a bottle of water. But for every one of those, there's probably 500 or more that just walk right by them. Don't even look at them."

While photographing his subjects, Gutknecht discovered, they did not crave money from Angelenos. Most of them longed for attention or acknowledgment.

 "We all crave attention. We all want companionship. We all want to feel like we fit in," Gutknecht said, "and I don't think it's any different for them."

No hope for reform

Los Angeles County is trying to help with homelessness, even eradicate it. As of October 1, a quarter-cent sales tax increase took effect to fund programs to serve and house homeless people. However, many on the street aren't convinced much will change.

"Most of the people that I encountered didn't express a lot of confidence in the programs. Some would say that people would come around and talk to them and then they would never come back."

Reserve judgment and open up your heart

The series features 50 photographs of different people without a home all throughout Los Angeles County. Gutknecht's message for the audience? Caring and attention is the more valuable currency.

"I hope that people remember that they are human beings and that they are their neighbors. I think any of us, if we had somebody setting up camp in our bushes, is probably going to be unhappy about it. 

"But go talk to them. Find out what's going on. Find one of these services that can help them. Don't lump them in the category of, 'Oh, they're a drug addict. Oh, they're an alcoholic. They're mentally ill.' Because they're all not.

"Even if they are, they still deserve to be helped."

To view the series, "I am...homeless." by Hans Gutknecht, click here

To hear more about the project and Gutknecht's experience documenting the homeless, click the blue play button above.