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May 6, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

Photographer documenting homeless families finds no place like Las Vegas


Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

New York-based photographer Craig Blankenhorn photographs Tom and his son Kaleb heading to a bus stop as part of his larger project focusing on youth and homelessness Wednesday, March 27, 2013.

Craig Blankenhorn's Child Homeless

Angela comforts her son Kaleb as they leave University Medical Center in Las Vegas, where they were visiting Kaleb's dad Tom, on Thursday, March 28, 2013. According to the National Center of Family Homelessness, there are over 1500 children homeless in Nevada. Launch slideshow »

Documenting Homeless Youth

New York-based photographer Craig Blankenhorn takes a photo of 4-year-old Kaleb near Main and Washington Streets while documenting his family as part of his larger project focusing on youth and homelessness Wednesday, March 27, 2013. Launch slideshow »
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

Craig Blankenhorn has spent most of his professional life on film and TV sets — “Sex in the City” and “The Sopranos” among them — shooting photos for the big advertising displays you see in newspapers and magazines.

But now he’s also traveling the country, documenting the lives of homeless families — people like Tom, Angela and little Kaleb, who is one of 1.6 million homeless kids in the United States.

On this day, Tom is practically sprinting up East Washington Avenue — with 4-year-old Kaleb on his shoulders — to go check on his fiancee, Angela, who is feverishly sick in their room at the Best Western.

Blankenhorn, carrying a couple of Canon EOS 5D Mark III cameras over his shoulders, is run-walking to keep up with Tom, not wanting to miss the scene.

As we hustle up the hill to get back to the Best Western, Blankenhorn whispers to me: “See what I mean? It’s a true love story.”

He’s talking about Tom and Angela. He met the couple last week through a contact at Catholic Charities.

Tom and Angela, who asked that their last names not be used because they don’t want to embarrass their family, came to Las Vegas with little but faith and hope.

They had been living in the Salt Lake City area, subletting the finished basement of a house, only to learn the people they were paying were using the money for heroin, causing everyone to get evicted.

They bounced around cheap motels. Without a car, they lost their jobs. They used the last of their money to get to Vegas, where Tom has family he hoped would help him out.

His brother gave him a little money when they got here, then told Tom to get lost.

Thanks to Catholic Charities, they are temporarily ensconced at the Best Western on Main and Washington, which seems to reserve the back of it farthest building for families like these.

Blankenhorn, the photographer, comes into the picture because he contacted me recently looking for help documenting homeless families here. The truth is, he doesn’t need much help. For more than a year, he has worked streets and weekly motels, shelters and churches in Tampa, Fla., and Scottsdale, Ariz.; Janesville and Beloit, Wis.; Kissimmee, Fla., and Essex County, N.J.; and become quite familiar with homeless families.

As he would quickly learn, though, there’s no place like Las Vegas.

• • •

We’re here at the Best Western early in the morning. Blankenhorn likes to hang out with families for long stretches — often taking no photos for an hour or two — so he can build trust and get the images of vulnerability that come after exhausting days jumping through bureaucratic hoops, finding food and applying for jobs and doing it all by bus or on foot.

Earlier in the week, Tom was up all night with Kaleb, who was running a fever.

This morning, it’s Angela who is sick. She’s munching on a sandwich, but it’s not sitting well; she runs to the bathroom and wretches.

There’s no mini-fridge, so the food money they got from Tom’s brother didn’t yield much that’s fresh. They’re resourceful, though. A half-gallon of milk sits in an ice bucket. Tom uses a microwave in the motel’s restaurant.

Luckily, little Kaleb is feeling better, happy with “SpongeBob SquarePants” on the TV and his dad’s tickling.

Angela will stay in bed and try to rest while Tom goes out to get a health district food safety card that will allow him to ply his craft as a cook. He has worked in restaurants for 17 years, since he was 15.

“Okay cracker, where’s your socks at?” Tom says to Kaleb.

We walk east on Washington toward the bus, with Kaleb on Tom’s shoulders.

Blankenhorn gets right up on his subjects, especially Kaleb, who treats the camera like a man seeing himself reflected in a river for the first time.

On the walk, Tom recalls his mom, also named Angela. She was a cocktail server at the Rio but died at 43 of cirrhosis.

He grew up in Las Vegas, graduated from Cheyenne High School and left for Utah in 2002. “It was a bad place to grow up,” he says of his hometown.

Since returning to Las Vegas, however, “This town’s been really good to us,” he says. He has spoken too soon.

We catch the bus, but before we get far, Tom takes a call from Angela, who is feeling worse and needs him.

“Stop the bus!” he yells just as the bus is leaving a stop.

This is when he puts Kaleb on his shoulders and starts really huffing up the hill as Blankenhorn and I try to keep up.

“I can’t let her get too sick,” Tom says. A bad break, all the same. No food safety card means no restaurant job.

• • •

The primary characteristic that distinguishes the people he’s met, Blankenhorn says, is that they have nothing to fall back on — no family or social network like the rest of us rely on when we screw up or when life just goes sideways.

This tracks with what I’ve found reporting on poor families: Their bad decisions — and they make a lot of them — are amplified by their bad luck, and there’s no one there to catch them when they inevitably fall.

Blankenhorn has also learned about the cycle of poverty: Kids who never had a role model, never saw an adult get up and go to work every day, go on to have kids of their own.

Missy, a young mother he photographed in Tampa for The New York Times, was sexually abused as a toddler and then shuttled around foster homes before getting tossed out when she turned 18. No one taught her how to brush her teeth, so they were all gone, which led one big-box retailer to tell her they could not hire her. Now she has a young son of her own.

Back at the Best Western, Tom is comforting Angela. Blankenhorn wants to stick around in case Tom is going to take his fiancee to the emergency room.

Blankenhorn and I hang around outside, and I tell him how amazed I am at how quickly he’s won the trust of Tom, Angela and Kaleb.

It turns out that Blankenhorn, who is 60, has lived the kind of textured life that helps him connect with people.

He volunteered for the Army and was a whisker away from Vietnam but wound up in Germany. After that, there was the University of Oregon and the oil fields and fishing boats to pay for it.

He hitchhiked across the country three or four times in the 1970s, camera in tow. “When you’re doing that, you better form a relationship real quick,” he says with a laugh.

He was a New York City taxi driver in the 1980s before finding his niche shooting still photos for movies and TV, though he’s always had his passion projects like this one. That need only grew when the love of his life died six years ago after 25 years of marriage.

So, once every three months or so, he heads out to a new city to find the stories of homeless families. “And then you get emotionally involved in the families. And especially the kids. It’s incredibly sad when you think about the children. What chance do they have? The parents always say, ‘The kids don’t deserve this.’ And they’re right.”

• • •

Tom brings Kaleb outside to play. Kaleb reaches up with his tiny hand and knocks on the door of a room down the way, where another family is living. Kaleb has friends — two little boys come out, and now the three of them are as thick as thieves, having a blast in the parking lot of the Best Western.

Blankenhorn loves this scene and is desperate to photograph it, so he retrieves release forms for the other mom, Miliam Quintanilla, who has a little baby in addition to her two boys now playing with Kaleb.

“Kiss me, I’m Irish,” the baby’s T-shirt reads. Blankenhorn is like a soldier, on his stomach, as low as he can get, capturing the face of a child who lives, for now, at a Best Western in Las Vegas.

Quintanilla has Tylenol for Angela, which is a lifesaver. Angela happily agrees to watch the kids while Quintanilla heads to the corner store. Even in the worst circumstances, human beings can show a fierce desire to find connection.

It’s time for me to take off, but Blankenhorn stays.

He continues to capture images of both families all day.

Then later that night, he calls me, flustered. Tom has been stabbed in the gut.

Later, we would learn that Tom went out for what’s known as a loosey, a single cigarette. There was some kind of verbal confrontation with a stranger near the motel, and when Tom returned from the store, he was stabbed at the corner of Main and Washington.

He was taken to University Medical Center in critical condition. After four hours of surgery, he is now recovering and should return to full strength. The news got four sentences in the Sun, based on a brief Metro Police press release.

The next morning, Blankenhorn caught up with Angela and Kaleb, who were going to the hospital to see Tom. Here the photographer faced a classic conundrum of journalistic ethics: Could he give them a ride to the hospital? Time and again, he wants to help his photo subjects, but he can’t for fear of turning real situations into artificial photo-ops.

“This is killing me about the project. What do you do?” he pleads. The story subjects, he says, are always understanding.

So Angela and Kaleb get on the bus.

Blankenhorn relates the scene to me later: At the hospital, Tom isn’t very coherent. He whispers to his fiancee and son, “I love you both.”

Blankenhorn captures compelling images of a little boy suddenly introduced to the world of human chaos and violence.

When I talk to Blankenhorn a couple of hours later, he says, “I plan on sitting in my hotel room and staring at the wall for a while.”

He is exhausted. And I can hear traces of despondency, a skepticism that anything can really be done. “I’m trying to document it and naively thinking I’m going to get somebody to do something about it.”

He’s sunk $35,000 of his own money into the project, hoping for nothing more than to show the forgotten.

His other work, shooting movie and TV stars, he says, “Pays the bills but doesn’t fill the soul.”

His photography, on the other hand, just might save a few, if we’re lucky.

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  1. Another sob story along with numbers pulled from thin air. Everyone knows that those with agendas, and the left has a myriad of them, inflates the numbers to make their case look better. 1.6 million homeless kids? Pardon me while I scoff at that figure. Nobody actually starves in the USA. Trillions have been and are being spent on "The War on Poverty," yet the "problem" continues to escalate. 50 years after the "Great Society" was set in motion, the ranks of those on the governnment dole has exploded and, yet, there is no visible progress. Millions on food stamps, welfare, subsidies and other handouts show this war, like its sister on Drugs, to be a major boodoggle and a contributing reason the USA is going down the toilet. A change has to be made - and soon!

  2. In the Bible, it states that, "The poor are with us always." Nothing changes, in thousands of years. People make decisions and reap the consequences of them. Some are very unfortunate decisions. Some,if not many, of these folks, are hard-wired in their mind sets. Perhaps, this should make a case for a more comprehensive mental health care system.

    How one thinks and behaves guides their life. With many of the homeless, not all, bad thinking got them there and tends to keep them there. There are people who come to this country and beat the odds, make something of themselves. Their mindset is different. In this country, there is no law against being either crazy or stupid, up until you are a danger to yourself or others.

    In my profession, there are homeless students that I serve. These children have adults who are typically dysfunctional, have issues, and are a poor influence on their children (yet these adults keep having children for the welfare). It is a vicious cycle. The outlook for these children is not good while with their adult/parent(s), aside from having school and maybe church, as where they spend quality time.

    Supporting local charities, or giving to local schools who carry such a population, is the best and safest avenues for helping those who are homeless.

    Blessings and Peace,

  3. Do what you can to help the needy, it not only helps them it will help you. Karma does work in this world. It's a shame that so many people now a days have little or no compassion for others. Peace to all.

  4. If we were in a period of plentiful jobs this would be a different discussion. However when I see a Job Fair in Las Vegas there are always multiples of applicants for every available job. So giving this issue the brush off (especially by your regular Right Wingers) is just the same selfish act we always see. Jobs Bills need to be passed on a National Level, people that were in mental institutions and thrown out by Ronald Reagan (again for a Wealthy Tax Cuts) need that housing and treatments. Veterans need more than lip service from the VA with actual benefits in Real Time. And Homeless Children need all of our support - regardless of how they got there - if we ever hope to break the cycle. As for TOM in this article - is this the result you can expect by a High School Education in Clark County - trained to be a Service worked until you die?

  5. Who pays for their cell phone?

    The article says Angela was ill, but photo 11 shows a very messy motel room.....a sign of laziness on the fathers part?

  6. "...exhausting days jumping through bureaucratic hoops ..... Tom goes out to get a health district food safety card that will allow him to ply his craft as a cook. He has worked in restaurants for 17 years, since he was 15..... No food safety card means no restaurant job."

    Coolican -- another good piece from you! The above should tell all of us, loud and clear, what the REAL problem is.

    "Who pays for their cell phone?"

    Noindex -- they've been passed out for free everywhere. Try to keep up, especially downtown.

    "Practise what I call a decent mammalian philosophy" -- Hervey Allen, 1933

  7. I'm looking at their son, and remembering that no matter what choices or bad luck have happened upon this family...there's a small child who didn't make any of those choices, or happen upon that bad luck, he just happens to be an innocent bystander and perhaps victim of circumstance. And for children, and families effected by bad choices, and bad circumstance, I have a bleeding heart and desire to help.

    Thanks for the article.

  8. There are many charitible organizations here in Clark County that avail themselves to those in need. There are people in our community who care and give(through the proper channels) to assist others less fortunate. There is an effort to insure needy individuals have a cellphone for emergency needs, possible employment, etc. that are free for those who need them.

    Many charitable organizations are also reaching out to the public for volunteers. The tough economic times has made it difficult for those organizations to keep their doors open and continuing to serve those in need.

    To Commenter 2theheartlessinnevada some who have commented have been touched in their lives, in some way, with those in need, including themselves. One tends to judge another much harder if they, themselves, have also walked, and survived that path. I can only speak for myself, however, and do speak out of my collective experiences. Those who have gone through the fires of life, will give back, in their own ways, "pay it forward" if you will, to help others through suffering. Certainly, no one wishes ill upon another, especially innocent children. It angers me when children are involved, and some, use children as a means for more aid, instead of planning families and utilitizing birth control measures. The poor kids.

    Here's hoping the day is brighter for those who have been down.

    Blessings and Peace,

  9. Let's find the terminology to distinguish "homeless" from those who "qualify" for and receive social welfare benefits that include taxpayer funded housing including weekly motels. Sure the weeklies are not the ideal place to raise a kid. AND, being single and homeless on the STREETS is an entirely different struggle. Did you see the repeat media of a single mom of two in Pennsylvania getting about $80K a year from federal and state welfare programs? She gets about $12K for daycare for one. Another $14K or so for early education for the other kid. We pay for her nursing school although she has NEVER HELD A JOB. She gets $6.5K "weatherization" money to insulate and replace windows. She candidly stated that it would be difficult to think about looking for a job when she gets everything handed to her.

  10. I just got conned again. (OK, I prefer being gullible to being entirely cynical about others.) Needed a hose bib replaced. Guy assured me he could do it for reasonable price. I've seen the guy around and he "advertises" that he can do it all, has experience, tools AND that he has a young child who "deserves" things. Well, he came and DIDN'T do the job. I paid and tipped. Immediately afterwards, water was gushing.... Called a trusted maintenance guy and got things fixed up pronto. Thank you Mickey. Anyhow, the first dude messed up. I was trying to figure out how to help the needy guy, kid and girlfriend (an illegal now with anchor baby and American taxpayers on tap to support her since the dude will certainly not make a living at what he does.) The guy, girlfriend and baby were tossed out of their condo a few months ago--I recall his pleas looking for work--tis why I hired him. Well, I'm out $150 and he's out of a "friend" with some means that could have found him other jobs. These three are NOT homeless--taxpayers are carrying the load: EBT SNAP, housing, Medicaid, LIHEA utilities, child care, food banks, non-profit diapers.... I'm turning my focus to NEEDY SENIORS and homeless singles without young kids. A point that needs attention in the MEDIA: so many of these "homeless" are that way because they refuse to support themselves in a way consistent with how much work they are willing and able to do. Illegal woman gets pregnant so American dude can support her AND she gets to STAY here. Dude gets her pregnant when he can't hold a job, can't perform the work, scams homeowners. Baby doing more than OK as taxpayers provide and provide and provide so much that we ignore hungry seniors and homeless singles.

  11. Ashley: What about the kid's environment? Staying with those parents means the child will grow up expecting the government, taxpayers, neighbors, strangers to hand out money and everything else whenever he needs or wants something. (I include the endless people asking for cash at the grocery stores, Walmarts, in the streets with signs.) And if not provided, we'll just take it because we're entitled to it. You have it and I want it. Two young healthy adult parents who COULD work even minimum wage honest jobs. Two parents who CANNOT care for the child--not much to infer that they are unable to meet the emotional needs of any child. Perhaps some day but they clearly are not yet ready to parent anyone. Two young adults that have no footings on how to find and keep a job and no means to "budget" limited finances by living in shared housing, watching the spending, not splurging, not getting a vehicle to maintain when they can get around on foot and public transportation. So WHAT IS WRONG with our programs that singles are ignored and parents / no one is transitioned into responsible living? This has to be addressed or the numbers "in need" will continue to increase. Adults must be treated as adults. Welfare agencies have "life skills" classes that are mandatory but clearly are not communicating the basics of finding and keeping a job, NOT buying non-essentials, effective shopping/consuming focusing on DOING WITHOUT rather than overspending and losing your bank account, losing your job, losing your transportation, losing your partner.