When I was in high school, I had an experience that forever changed the way I saw the world.
It was Christmastime and the a capella singing group I was in gave a concert at a local homeless shelter. It was the first time I experienced any real, direct contact with the homeless population, and it wasn’t anything like I expected it to be.
Before that day, I’d passed by people holding up signs for money in the street, and even handed out food a few times at a homeless shelter. But meeting with a homeless single mother and her daughters after the concert was the first time I ever spoke one-on-one with someone who was making it day by day, without a home to call their own. And hearing that family’s story completely changed my perspective.
Photographer Sara Easter, who owns Sara Liz Photography in Arlington, Texas, had worked closely with families living in shelters as a social worker long before taking on photography. But now, she’s found a way to share just what it’s really like to parent when you are homeless, through a gripping and heart-wrenching photo series titled, “Sheltered.”
The series follows the Henderson family, who have been living in a Forth Worth shelter called Union Gospel Mission of Tarrant County since July 2017. The family of six live together in one single room with a double bed, a set of bunk beds with a trundle, and a crib.
It wasn’t how they imagined raising their family, but after losing their housing last year, the couple ran out of options.
“Because there are six of them, they had a difficult time finding anyone who could accommodate all of them,” Easter tells Babble.
And so, after bouncing between friends and family members, they eventually ended up at the shelter where they met Easter, who’s been a volunteer there for the last few years. It was this familiarity that ultimately led Easter to approach the Henderson’s about the project, and ask to shadow them over several days as they went about their normal routine, in hopes of capturing what it’s like to be in their shoes.
The result is a raw look at family life in a homeless shelter.
“The family was incredibly open and unrestrained with me,” Easter tells Babble. “I went to meals with them, photographed as they played on the playground, and spent time hanging out in their room. I documented as they did chores and cleaned their space one day. I was able to get a picture of the baby’s very first steps (which was amazing), and I was even shooting as Dad tried to sleep in a room full of kids so that he’d be ready for his shift working nights.”
Easter is a mother herself, and says that she was struck by how similar the couple’s parenting experiences mirrored her own.
“Of course, there is a major resource gap between those parents who are stably housed and those who are not,” Easter notes, “but on a fundamental level I kept seeing the same struggles and triumphs that are inherent to parenthood.”
We all may have our differences as parents, but at the end of the day, we all have the same goal: A happy, thriving child.
“We are all raising kids who have strong feelings about what’s for dinner,” she shares, “who can’t find their shoes when we’re already late, who fight with their siblings, but who also know how to make their baby sister laugh, celebrate their first lost tooth, and give phenomenal hugs.”
It just goes to show that parenting is universally challenging and rewarding, and that is something that Easter wanted to highlight.
“I wanted viewers of the project to hopefully see something of their own family in these images, to put the judgement aside and find something they could relate to,” she says.
But along with the commonalities, there are glaring differences. Easter told Love What Matters that this photo series is different than any other shoot she’s ever done.
“The families I usually photograph have more resources, more space, more freedom and options to do what they choose,” Easter said. “There are struggles I never thought about before this. Such as how to get everyone to sleep in one room, how to load up four kids to run downstairs to the laundry room and move a load of clothes into the dryer.
Easter tells Babble that the Henderson family is participating in a program that will hopefully give them some resources to be successful on their own after leaving the shelter.
“They are saving what they can and are on the list for subsidized housing (although the anticipated wait is years),” Easter says.
The Henderson’s situation is a very similar one to the family I met several years ago — the mother and daughter I still wonder about today. After speaking with them that December day, I felt helpless, and wanted to offer them something — anything. So I sheepishly handed over my coat, and asked the mom if one of her daughters might want it.
Several minutes later, as we were preparing to leave, a dark-haired girl around my age ran up to me. She was wearing the coat, and gave me a big, tearful hug. It was at that moment that I realized just how much I truly take for granted, and it broke my heart.
Moments like that humble us. They open us up to the challenges others face, and make us aware of just how big an impact even the smallest act of kindness can have. Hopefully, thanks to these moving images captured by Sara Easter, more Americans will be made aware of the everyday struggles homeless families face, and inspire us all to take action whenever and however we can.