Fifty Sandwiches: Humanizing the homeless

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Cd’A native looks to humanize the homeless

Coeur d’Alene native and recent Boise State University graduate Justin Doering is working on a project to humanize the homeless.

Doering’s project, “Fifty Sandwiches,” will look deeper into the lives of the homeless population across the country. He plans to spend three months traveling to major cities in the U.S. As he travels, Doering will buy each person he interviews a sandwich and listen to their life’s story. The end product will be a book called “Fifty Sandwiches” with photos and stories of the people he meets.

“Think 'Humans Of New York' from the unheard and unknown, with a touch of narrative to make the reader feel like they are the ones sitting down for a chat,” Doering wrote in an email to The Press. “The intent is to construct an almost unnerving emotional bridge between reader and the struggling stranger they walk past everyday.”

Doering will start his trip in June from Coeur d’Alene where the idea for this project originated. He will go west to Seattle then travel down the coast.

In a phone interview from Boise, Doering told The Press about his project and its goals.

Press: Where did this idea originate?

Doering: The idea has been in my head since my sophomore year in high school. I had a mentor who went to the shelter twice a week and I started going with him. And that was when I really found a passion for it and realized these people aren’t at all what the stereotypes make them out to be; these are really nice people who really appreciate what I’m doing for them. That’s when I started to see the issue with public perception. I’ve been passionate about it since. My senior project in high school focused on homelessness as well as my senior project for college.

The idea in my head was that this would be a nice way to try to close the gap between perception and reality and to actually hear the voices of the people that you never hear.

Press: How did you come up with the name “Fifty Sandwiches?”

Doering: Actually, the name was something I thought of in high school, it was the first name that popped into my head. I felt that naming it “50 Homeless People” would kind of defuse the people in it. I’m not just trying to say they are homeless people, I’m trying to say these are all sorts of people.

The title says that the only thing the people in the book have in common is that I bought them a sandwich. So that’s where the name came from. I don’t want to generalize or stereotype homelessness, but I don’t mind generalizing sandwiches.

Press: Are you only going to publish 50 people’s stories?

Doering: No, it’s going to be far more than 50. At first I thought 50 was going to be a good number, but now I’ve interviewed eight people and I really liked interviewing them. They turn into these hour and a half discussions and I feel like I can do a lot more than 50. But 50 sandwiches sounded a lot better than 145 sandwiches.

Press: How do you approach people to interview them?

Doering: Usually when I go to the shelters, I’ll serve food, I’ll watch the people come by and see people who might be more interested in talking to me. Usually I just approach them and try to be really un-intimidating and say ‘Hey, I’m doing this project trying to close the public perception of homelessness, and trying to show people your guys’ stories, do you mind if I talk to you.’ Most times, all times but once, they’ve been all up for it. Usually the conversations take up to an hour or an hour and a half, just because you get side tracked. They’re not really interviews, they’re really just chats.

Press: Do you only approach people in shelters?

Doering: No, that’s just usually a good place to meet them. I went to Venice Beach a few weeks ago and interviewed some people on the beach. The plan for the trip is basically to interview people who might have an interest in talking to me.

I’m trying to keep an open mind with any type of person. The shelters might be the best place to meet people because those are people who have an interest in getting out of their current situation.

Press: Are you scared you might mistake someone for being homeless?

Doering: Uh, that’s another advantage of being at the shelter. I haven’t exactly thought about that, but I guess that’s a possibility. I’ll have to be careful when I walk around and go to approach people.

Press: How do you start your conversations?

Doering: I have a list of questions, and so far I haven’t had to use it. The first question I ask is ‘How did you end up here?’, and we start talking. They start to unravel their story to me and I just keep prodding away and trying to get more out of them. So I’m trying to use that question as a starting point, then go from there and really capture the story.

Press: What has been the most memorable interview you’ve done so far?

Doering: That’s a good question. I’ve been punched in the face with culture shock every time. I’ve had a pretty easy life and the people I talk to have obviously faced some much more incredible struggles.

I think the one that stuck with me, there was a girl I met in Venice Beach — she was 18 or 19, she wasn’t sure — her name is Sarah Jean. She did not let me take photos of her or photos of any of her things. When I first told her about my project, she said, ‘No, you can’t interview me. I’m actually working on a real project.’

I said “OK.” As I turned around and started to walk away, she ran after me and asked if I wanted to read her book.

I was sitting under this tarp with this crazy girl on Venice Beach listening to her read poetry to me. That was probably the craziest one.

Press: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Doering: I’m sure most people are aware that anyone can be homeless, but there’s this public perception that they’re all just one in the same kind, that they’re just people who don’t want to work, people who struggle with addiction or people who don’t have a justifiable excuse, that they’re just people who want to be homeless. That’s what they seem to think. I think that people really underestimate the diversity of the homeless situation and don’t have a good grasp on what the reasons for becoming homeless are. A pretty good percentage of the population lives paycheck to paycheck, so if one person gets fired, they find themselves in a situation they’ve never been in before. I’ve talked to a few people who were either middle class or upper middle class, and within just a two-month period, they were suddenly homeless. I really want to foster a realization that it can happen to anyone and the people who are homeless aren’t defined by that.

• • •

Doering is seeking crowdfunding to finance the project. To support “Fifty Sandwiches,” visit his Kickstarter page, which is expected to go live today,

To see interviews Doering has already completed, visit his blog,

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