SF Photographer Captures How the “Other Half” Lives

The best documentary photography has long been packaged and showcased, along with its fine art cousin, in so-called “coffee table” books. But Robert Gumpert’s Division Street (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2022), a study of homelessness in San Francisco, may be a hard sell as a glossy addition to the living room furniture of Californians all too familiar with real-life views of people sleeping on the streets.

A photo-journalist for 48 years, Gumpert grew up in Los Angeles, where he attended Marshall High School and LA Community College, before taking his first pictures for a local underground newspaper. For much of his career, he has lived on Potrero Hill in San Francisco, a part of the city once working class but now decidedly upscale.

Seven years ago, city officials decided to push homeless people further away from downtown tourist attractions. Just down the hill from Gumpert’s neighborhood, these new arrivals created a messy encampment that initially drew a flurry of press attention before the lens of the mainstream media shifted elsewhere. Gumpert had already spent several years photographing and interviewing residents of the SF county jail, a population which includes past and future residents of homeless camps outside it. 

So he decided to find out what it’s like to be un-housed, rather than incarcerated, in one of the wealthiest cities in America. Alumni of the county jail helped smooth the way for him to become a familiar and trusted visitor the area around Division Street. There, Gumpert became uniquely committed to longer-term documentation of individual and community life in tents, card board boxes, and other make-shift structures.

Will those of us who can afford a house or an apartment, but walk or drive by the homeless every day, buy a $49 book that further reminds us of their plight? Let’s hope that many of us do and for the same reasons that book buyers in 1890 snapped up a photo collection called How The Other Half Lives: Studies of the Tenements of New York.  The author was Jacob Riis, a former police reporter who became a pioneering documentary photographer and then influential campaigner for better housing for slum dwellers. In his muck-raking work, Riis had to overcome the popular perception that the poor, because of their bad personal habits, were responsible for their own sorry living conditions. How the Other Half Lives succeeded in generating far greater public sympathy for impoverished families who, in Riis’s era, at least had the roof of a building over their heads.

Studies in Black and White

In mainly black-and-white photos, Division Street juxtaposes how the down-and-out and the more fortunate co-exist in the same urban spaces today. San Francisco Giants fans cross the Lefty O’Doul Bridge on their way to the ballpark, ignoring the blank stare of a grizzled old-timer, seated in a wheel chair, holding a cup and a hand-scrawled sign identifying him as a “veteran” in need of “food and help.” A jogger heading east on Division Street toward the tech and start-up district similarly avoids any sideways glance at a long row of tents just a few feet away. Occupants of an expensive late model car, wait for the light to change, while someone their own age lies curled up in a grimy sleeping bag by the curb. A small cardboard and wooden lattice structure, the size of a child’s playhouse, appears on a page of the book right next to a shot of a towering condo development at Spear and Folsom Streets (where one-bedroom units sold for $900,000 and upper floor units, with three bedrooms, went for $3 million).

Gumpert captures his subjects in all kinds of revealing poses, at rest and often on the move, due to periodic sweeps by the police and public works department. Near the corner of 15th and Carolina Streets in San Francisco, a bald, tattooed tent dweller nick-named King Kong, peers out warily from behind a tent flap, while maintaining what appears to be a lotus pose. Sandy, a young woman in baseball cap, demonstrates her sponge bathing technique in a friend’s wooden box on Berry Street. Jennifer Hahn and her husband Israel could be pet lovers pictured in a living room anywhere, but the cat they are cuddling together is the third occupant of a tent located at Division and Bryant Streets. In a box nearby, 51-year old Eddie Tate seems snug and secure, bedded down in what looks like a small cabin on some kind of sailing vessel. Ten months after Gumpert photographed him there, he was shot and killed on Shotwell Street.

Ashanti Jones, a 44-year African-American musician and artist, posed for Gumpert next to several speakers and a stack of CDs in a tent located on and later removed from the Caltrans-owned parking lot between Merlin and Oak Grove Streets. Tyrone Butler, age 59 and without a home for 18 years, peers directly at the camera from a tarp-covered tent he has turned into a bike repair center. Amelia Mustain and Patrick Riley, stand in the open doorway of a badly battered and graffiti-covered RV on Jerold Street. There, both are glad to have escaped winter-time conditions in a tent where “you’re soaking wet, you are never dry for as long as it’s raining.”

Amid all the daily hardships, indignities, and danger that the homeless endure, a number of Gumpert’s interview subjects stress the importance of communal solidarity, which makes survival possible for some. Arms folded, a recent hospital admission bracelet still on one wrist, Addie Covington, a 51-year old white woman without a home for 14 years, tells the author that “the homeless have formed a community and the ones that stay together watch each other’s stuff so that no one comes through and steals it or ransacks it or anything else.”

Thirty-three-year old Sonny Thompson, homeless for 2/3rds of his life, recounts his personal discovery that “some of the grimmest, some of the dirtiest people can be some of the best friends you’ll ever have, or the people with the most heart who will actually help you in your time of need.” Robin Lee, age 35 and homeless, on and off, since she was 18, clasps her hands together and explains to Gumpert that “this works in a lot of different ways.” Says Lee: “You give, I give. You’re sick one day and you don’t have much, and I have a plethora of things. I’m going to make sure that you’re taken care of and you’re going to reciprocate that when you see another person sick.”

Helping Families In Need

Even more hopeful are some of the first-person stories accompanying the group portraits that Gumpert took at Compass Family Services, which helps low-income San Franciscans find stable housing and employment. There, the photographer often posed family groups against brightly colored floral backgrounds. Douglas Marlowe Jones and Juthaporn Chalocicheep, who spent five years living under a bridge, are pictured with their two-year old son Douglas. They now have housing and Juthaporn has finished college, but, on behalf of those still struggling, she appeals for “your compassion, understanding and kindness.”

JR and Dynasty Toney stood shoulder to shoulder with their two daughters; when photographed by Gumpert. At the time, all were living together in a shelter, juggling work, school, and a search for permanent affordable housing, where neither parent would have to worry about “where the girls are going to shower every day.” Robert House and his pregnant wife Tarah, could be any casually dressed professional couple in San Francisco with jobs and an apartment. Instead they’re posed with their daughter Kamden in Robert’s arms, two roller-bag suitcases packed and ready to go at their feet, and a reminder to readers of Division Street that, in Tarah’s words, “some people are doing everything they can to better themselves and it’s just simply not enough…We are probably on fifteen different waiting lists.”

The strength of Gumpert’s book lies not in any multi-point programs to end homelessness, which Division Street does not provide. Rather, the photographer’s project is simply to remind fellow Californians, and readers everywhere, that the many people living in tents, boxes, under bridges and by the highways in our midst are human beings too, whose complicated lives are not likely to improve until their basic need for shelter is far better met.

Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com