Martin Schoeller has shot close-up portraits of presidents, movie stars, and billionaire entrepreneurs. For the past six months, his subjects have had a lower profile but are no less compelling: the homeless who come to the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition for a hot meal. In exchange for a photo and quick interview, he offers them a Polaroid of their portrait and $20. “I want to show appreciation for their time,” says Schoeller, who posts their faces on his Instagram feed, @martinschoeller. “It’s important to bring their stories out, to give them more of an identity.” He hears again and again that drugs, child abuse, and poverty are contributing factors to homelessnes. But the most common theme? “Not having enough love growing up,” he says. “That’s what it really comes down to.”
Q: How long have you been out on the streets?
A: Since, like, 2010, going into 2011.
Q: Where did you live before—around here?
A: Yeah. I lived by myself, and then I had a boyfriend. It’s difficult, since I thought I was gonna get married to him. It’s just like…it’s OK. Thank God I got a good spirit. I’m, like, we shoulda been married. But I’ll be all right.
Q: How old were you when you ran away?
A: I was probably 13.
Q: Have you ever been back? You’ve seen your parents since then?
A: No, my parents died.
Q: How long ago?
A: They both died in ’95.
Q: You ran away after they passed away?
Q: What do you mean by you’re a “street mom”?
A: I try to steer [homeless kids] on the right path. I came out to the streets when I was really young. Out of all the ones I’ve raised so far—26 altogether—13 of them went back to school. One is studying to be a crime scene investigator. Over the years I probably only lost four of them.
KELLY BACA JR.
Q: Do you feel safe on the streets?
A: I’m actually in a transition homeless shelter with the Covenant. It’s through LGBT.
Q: What would you like to do as a job? What interests you?
A: I thought about being a bartender and also doing cosmetology.
Q: What’s your name, young man?
A: Sam Smith. I’m not the singer, I’m the homeless poet. I have a weird backstory. I was left at the hospital the day I was born, put into foster care, foster care closed down, foster parents adopted me, foster parents were abusive.
Q: How old were you when you started living on the streets?
Q: What keeps you from getting an apartment? Isn’t there a way to get one?
A: Myself keeps me away.
A: I’m afraid.
Q: How old are you now?
A: I’m 21.
Q: What is crystal meth like?
A: You’re very alert. That’s why the eyes dilate like that and everything. It’s just so freaky. I have seen officers that look me in the eye, and they’re like, “Are you on it? Are you on it?” And they’re shining a light in my eye and your eye doesn’t respond. It’s like dollar bills, silver dollars.
Q: How long were you on heroin?
A: Twenty-five years. I got a lot of other habits, too, so…
Q: You’re lucky to be alive, man.
A: Oh, I’m so blessed. I was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in 1991. God, whatever it is, he, she—I don’t have any answers, but there’s something there. I’ve had wonderful health, too. I run several miles a day.
Q: Where do you come from?
A: Some family in Tennessee, and my dad is in Tallahassee. I burned my bridges, did things that made them not trust me. Not drugs at that point, but stealing. They gave me plenty of chances. I’m not resentful. For a long time I carried a hatred for my family, but I realized it was my own doing. How could I be mad?