CJ's Story

CJ's been on the streets for 16 years. When you talk to him about it, there are two things that keep coming up: drinking beer and making people smile. He's constantly making jokes and waving to passersby while flying his big yellow sign that reads, "Wife + dog kidnapped by ninjas need $$ for kung-fu lessons I really want my dog back!" He's also a military vet, husband, father, and small business owner.

His story exemplifies the internal conflict of homelessness. How can a man who has known so much responsibility give it all up and live off of others? How can a person who feels real joy--to the point where he wants to share it with others--sink into periods of alcoholic depression? CJ is complicated, stubborn, and downright enjoyable. He's a hard man to figure out until you learn how he got here in the first place.

17 years ago CJ's wife was driving with their seven year old son when a drunk driver hit their car, killing them both. After the funeral CJ wasn't able to sleep in his house or work at the construction business he owned. He turned the business over to his foreman and sold the house along with everything he had except his truck. He bounced around for a year, holding odd jobs and moving in and out of his sister's place. The $80k he kept was spent on alcohol and motels. When the money ran out he happened to be in Austin, so one night he found shelter under the freeway overpass at 183 and Burnet and slept under some old blankets he found.

On the third day of shooting with CJ his mood had darkened noticeably. I figured it was the tall cans of Colt 45 that he and his buddies had started on early, so I didn't mention it. A couple hours into the day, he turned to me with tears in his eyes and told me that it was the anniversary of his wife and son's death. His son would be 23 years old.

After the beer, he went out to the corner with his sign and a big smile. He told frog jokes to a fellow vet in a big truck with a 'Trump' sticker and chatted warmly with a 20-something in a prius. Some people liked his sign, some people looked nervous and rolled up their windows. But CJ doesn't mind. To him it's just another day of surviving on the streets with a smile.

Danny Bravens
Ben's Story

Ben and Buck have been friends for years. Buck didn't have time to do an interview, and Ben didn't want me following him around with a camera all day. They've been friends for years, having worked the same corner. Ben sells water, sometimes $1, sometimes $5, and one time, somebody even gave him a $100 bill. He wasn't interested in doing the interview at first, but once he started to open up he offered a clear-eyed view of life on the streets, one of my the most interesting perspectives I've heard so far.

Ben is a former U.S. Marine and was doing well with his life until a bad relationship left him bruised and depressed. He lost his job and then his apartment. One day he was hungry so he started flying a sign. It happens that quick. Sometimes, you don't even realize it.

Ben sees it as work, I think. He talked about making more money on the streets than he did at his $9.25/hr job. He had never made enough for his apartment before. Now he makes decent money, but without an employer paycheck, apartments won't rent to him. And now that he doesn't have an address, he can't get a job that pays above-the-counter. That's the catch for a lot of the homeless population I've talked to. 

You need an apartment to get a job, and you need a job to get an apartment. What a system.

As Ben talked more about the pitfalls and catch-22s of life on the streets, I realized that this is a guy who should be successful. He's smart, he's engaging, he's honest. How did he end up here? Was it the depression? Is it the system? Can it be attributed to some ethereal socio-economic factors or simple institutional biases? Probably it's all of these plus a few others. That makes his situation that much more frustrating for me. I want to just take him out somehow, let him start over. But then there would be another Ben to take his place, and the cycle continues, ad infinitum.

"If something happens and you get into a situation, don't come to these streets. These streets will reach out and grab you." -Ben's advice

Danny Bravens
Chris's Story

Every day on the way home I drive on the I35 access road north toward Rundberg and take the U-turn under the freeway. I don't have to stop at the light right there but I always see someone panhandling. It's a good spot. A lot of cars pass through, and a lot of hispanics coming home from work: A good population to see when you're living on the streets, according to Chris. I saw him a few times over a couple weeks and had waved to him a time or two. 

I had wanted to film with someone living on the streets for a while by then. Maybe a couple years. My real dream was to do a story on veterans with mental health issues. I didn't know how to approach the  issue, or more specifically, I didn't know how to approach the people. I'm not a vet, can I just go up to them and say, "Hey man, I'm Danny, I'd like to make a video about your life."? I ran through a lot of different intros in my head, none of them sounded a whole lot better than that. 

Chris normally was dressed in camo or earth-tone pants and an optional shirt. He is very well built and has a prosthetic leg. He had the look of a wounded vet. Driving by one night (he was wearing camo this time) I made up my mind to try, to at least ask. I grabbed my gear from home and drove to a strip mall across the street from the island he was panhandling from and got out. I was nervous approaching him and I think I made him nervous, too.

"Hey man, I'm Danny, I'm making a series of videos on people living on the streets. I'd love to shoot with you if you'd be interested. Could I buy you dinner and we can talk more about it?" 

"Uh...I don't know man, I gotta make some money to buy pants for work."

I told him I'd be willing to cover him for his lost time and offered $20. My wife later questioned the ethics of paying people in desperate situations for their stories. That question is still unresolved, but the way I look at it, we often pay people for use of their time, assets, or locations for films, why shouldn't he get compensated for time away from his gig? Still not sure if it's right but I guess I can dive more into that later.

Anyway, a couple whataburgers later Chris was open to me shooting and sharing his story. He told me about how he lost his leg and how he knows he looks like a vet and that yes, he uses it to his advantage but he never tells people he was a vet but he doesn't tell him he's NOT a vet and yes, he knows that's a little shady but a dude's gotta make a buck. He told me lots. He told me that his kid is living with his mother (and hopefully future wife) with her ex-husband at his grandma's house an hour and a half away and that the way he sees it, his own kids have a roof over their heads. "That's the way she says it. That's the way I see it."

After hearing about his life I came away with less answers than I thought I had coming in. Life is complicated on the streets. But Chris had a fascinating, deep understanding of homelessness. He gave me some hope that people can make it out. It's not easy, and often the rest of us don't make it easier. But given some time and space, I think Chris will be just fine.

Danny Bravens