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North America
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New York, USA, Homelessness
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A collaborative documentary project, exploring stories of homeless and addiction on the corner of 74th Street + Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, New York City.
Robert Sukrachand

2008 — student award of excellence

The sun sets slowly on 74th and Roosevelt and the air is thick with anticipation. It’s limbo: the streets begin to clear out and soon only the wanderers remain. Tommy and John throw in for a bottle while Fay and Marianne bicker about who gets to keep a set of earrings they just found; Peter says he’ll be back in an hour: “I’m going to make some change on Queens Boulevard,” he tells us; Bugsy, looking to lighten up the mood a little, turns to me and asks jokingly, “Yo’ Bobby, if my balls were on your head, would my dick be on your mind?” We all laugh, welcoming this momentary distraction from the hustle—the ceaseless craving. John, summoning a tone somewhere between love and lament, says, “This corner is the Bermuda Triangle of Queens. Once you come in, you never know when you’re coming out.”

This was largely the scene that greeted me one year ago as I exited the Roosevelt Avenue subway station for the first time. Tommy, 50-years-old and a lifelong resident of Jackson Heights became my first friend. He could tell I was new to the neighborhood and that I needed some education. ‘Little’—as he is known locally—quickly informed me that there was a ‘crew,’ a nomadic and largely enigmatic group of people who gather on the corner of 74th St. + Roosevelt Ave.

The ‘crew’ is diverse in terms of race, gender, and age, but they are unified by a common addiction to alcohol, and in some cases, crack cocaine. Most, but not all, are homeless. The more we became friends, the more I photographed. As a deeper relationship emerged I began to see that this was not simply a story of material misfortune, but one also about a survival structure — a family — that emerges in response to the veracities of the street. The challenge became to slow down with the camera, to capture moments of hope, affection, companionship, resiliency, and the everyday struggle to survive.

But there was a hidden element — that is, an un-physical and largely un-photographable dimension to these people’s lives that I was also drawn to: their memories. As life on the corner is perpetually uneventful, days are spent telling stories and remembering past times—happy and sad, hopeful and tragic. I thought these stories might be illuminating for viewers who struggle to identify with this community otherwise, and so I began a collaborative storytelling process. The goal of this has been to provide the subjects’ some agency and the opportunity to relay their own stories.

But additionally, I found that this process produced a representation that allows the viewer to see themselves in the lives of these people. Recently, after creating postcards that contained my pictures on the front and the subjects’ stories on the back, a local waiter, after reading the story of John, explained his fear of ending up homeless, as he has been an alcoholic for over ten years. His experience was not one of looking downwardly at these people, but of using their stories to look inward at himself. To find out that the man he saw sleeping and drinking on the streets every day had — only one year ago — been a nurse with an apartment in Maryland, just a ‘normal guy,’ was alarming. He explained in a trembling pitch, “This could happen to anyone.” Quite correct. Many of the people I have met on the streets are veterans, or victims of domestic abuse, or had a tragic loss in their family many years ago, and have simply been unable to lift themselves up out of a complex structure of psychological and chemical addiction.

My challenge in continuing this collaborative documentary is to find new ways to highlight the individuality and the dignity of these people’s lives, paying careful attention not to denigrate them to symbols of the ‘homeless’ or ‘addicted.’ This can be achieved only through an exploration of their past lives as well as their current realities. Indeed, an entanglement of the two is most revealing.

Upon graduating from New York University in May, I will immerse myself deeper into the community. Pictures that evoke the reality of life on the corner will require a heightened investment of time and finance. I will also begin documenting the narrative of recovery as John addresses his alcoholism and depression in a rehabilitation program in upstate New York and Chris attempts to reunite with his family in suburban Pennsylvania.

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“This has gotten me through a lot of tough times: the first Gulf War, the divorce from my wife, losing my job, and now trying to survive on the streets. I hold this in my hands every day.”  -John. Robert Sukrachand/Alexia Foundation
A poem by Peter: “I pray one avoids evil's fruitful tree/its tree grows stronger by those it deceives/its deceptive ability may come as a surprise/when one learns that evils seed is sin in disguise/while growing up learning too late/and making your mistakes toward a misguided fate/seeing all that glitters is gold/never learning your own thoughts/yet unknown/yet untold.” Robert Sukrachand/Alexia Foundation
“I was pregnant when I was eighteen. My first husband used to beat me everyday – my head was slammed against every wall. Finally, one day someone called the house to interview for a job with my husband’s painting company. I told him he was pouring boiling water on my back. 5 minutes later the ambulance came. I still don’t know who that person was, but I pray for him every day. That was almost thirty years ago. From there, I went on welfare and bounced around in shelters, which I eventually gave up on because they’re more dangerous than the streets. This is where I live now. This is home.” –Marianne. Robert Sukrachand/Alexia Foundation
“Every person you see on these streets has had something bad happen to them in their lives. We try to recover, but it’s hard. It’s a struggle to survive.” -Ernie. Robert Sukrachand/Alexia Foundation
“You know that song, ‘Man in the Mirror?’ Yeah, the one by Michael Jackson. This is why he wrote that song. That’s Bugout; he’s the man in the mirror. He’s looking to change his ways. He wants a new outlook on life. You can see it in his fucking eyes.” -Peter. Robert Sukrachand/Alexia Foundation
“Look at Fay, she doesn’t look homeless. She’s the mother of the corner. They’re always making us look like criminals, man.” –Ernesto. Robert Sukrachand/Alexia Foundation
“It’s like please, God, everything is passing me by in life. Jim Morrison said, ‘You seen your birth, your life, your death. Can you recall all the rest? Did you have a good world when you did? Enough to base a movie upon?' This is what I ask myself. If I were wearing another mans shoes, would they fit? Would I be able to walk in them? Would I be able to carry his burden? Put the weight on my shoulders. That’s why they call me Peter.” -Peter. Robert Sukrachand/Alexia Foundation
“I call this corner the Bermuda Triangle of Queens, because once you come in, you never know when you’re coming out.” –John. Robert Sukrachand/Alexia Foundation
I grew up down the street from here. Most recently I lived in Maryland for about 10 years, where I had a job as a nurse. After I got divorced I was so depressed I stopped going to work and just started drinking. I ran out of money, and sold all of my possessions - my laptop, my car. I knew nothing else to do but to come back to New York. Jackson Heights will always be home. But I gotta get off the streets man. Everyone tells me I'm too young for this. I know this life isn’t for me. -John. Robert Sukrachand/Alexia Foundation
“Oh Wow! I love this picture. That’s just me and Tommy Little. That’s me and my best friend. I was so happy because he had just gotten out of the hospital.”
- Marianne. Robert Sukrachand/Alexia Foundation