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Redemption Song: A Portrait of Life at 2100 Lakeside Avenue 

Lakeside Avenue quickly but very subtly shifts itself eastward from the addresses of the Jones Day law offices at East 9th Street into a far different world. By the time you reach the East 20s, you're in another Cleveland, one that people don't talk about too often and one that houses, among other things, the state's largest homeless men's shelter, dubbed 2100 Lakeside colloquially.

That's where Lydia Bailey works as both the volunteer coordinator and ad hoc photographer. Lydia Bailey is kind of a star at 2100. Wherever she goes, a chorus of "Ms. Bailey! Hey, Lydia!" follows, and a fist bump or a hug is always looming.

Big green numbers — "2100," set against brickwork — signal the shelter, the oft-misunderstood magnet of faith on the near eastside. There are usually at least a dozen guys hanging around the entrance; some are volunteers, some are residents, some are casually and warily eyeing the place and debating if today will be the day they submit to The Shelter. Most of them have probably heard the same river of rumor — the place is dangerous, the place is just another free meal and a bed, the place will change your life.

Lydia's familiar with all of that, of course. She's been here for about seven years now. Along the way, she began carting a point-and-shoot digital camera with her and snapping quick, in-the-moment photos of all these guys who have passed through the 2100 experience. Her work, having culminated in a full-blown art exhibit complemented by her inscription of the men's personal stories in their own words, now travels the region (20 locations from here to D.C.) as Portraits of Homelessness, an ode to the simple fact that these men are not statistics.

"I think a lot of people have been struck by the humanity of people here," Lydia says, framed now by some of the very photos she's taken, which hang tastefully on nearly every wall at 2100. She has shot hundreds of photos of these men over the years, which is, unfortunately, just a fraction of those who live adrift in Cleveland.

According to the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, the numbers are staggering. In 2012, homeless shelters around here served 8,428 people (a 23-percent jump from the previous two years). Of those, 3,210 were "newly homeless," likely victims of the ongoing economic recession and, inevitably, the mid-2000s housing bubble. Still, those shelter numbers nab only about half of the real homeless population. Advocates say it's impossible to really count.

Generally and statewide, just shy of half the homeless population receives food stamp benefits. 2100 facilitates that process; the shelter can also line up more self-sustaining income for groceries and the like. And that's why 2100's tag as a "homeless shelter" is actually somewhat imprecise. There's much more going on behind the brickwork and lingering crowds out front. "Transitional housing," more of a school of thought than the immediate euphemism it might call to mind, is the phrase that gets passed around quite often here.

For the men who live at 2100, Lydia's photos expose a sense of humanity that sometimes they forget about themselves and, more often than not, that the world around them forgot a long time ago.

***

Lydia is busy today. In fact, 2100 as an entity is busy. The shelter gushes and swells with motion at every turn. I mention to Lydia how busy this place seems, and a gentleman rushing past us in the hallway quickly interjects: "Very much so!" Then he's out of sight, rounding a corner and caroming into the day's duties. People exit one door and duck into another. 2100 is nothing if not active. There are often some 400 guys living here on any given day. Most of them will stick around for 30 days or so, working toward independence and getting help from an array of service-oriented agencies around the region.

In through the front door and out of the swirling Lakeside Avenue breeze, a gray hallway leads to a short set of stairs, and there's often a line of men here. They come for different reasons, though it may be years before they articulate them. Volunteers rush back and forth through the metal detector, tending to new names and signing off on deliveries piling up just inside the door. A massive fan billows a faint scent of industrial disinfectant around the front desk. Everyone raises their arms as the security staff wands incoming bodies.

If someone's got a question, the men at the front desk will be able to answer it. But most guys are too stunned when they get here to even consider voicing a question.

For those new to the 2100 trip, there are two routes in: You can go formal and get registered at Central Intake — back in those offices by the cafeteria, where John "Two Braids" is working right now — or you can hang in the emergency services bay for a night or two. 2100 doesn't turn people away. The folks that work or volunteer here, Lydia and Two Braids among several hundred more, might prefer simple registration, but there's a sense that men are following their God-given path. Best not to force their hands.

Two Braids has expressive eyes that fix on others' with a friendly determination. His hair knits tightly into his namesake on the back of his head. He doesn't want his photo taken, but he says to tell the readers that he looks "like Snoop Dogg or that other guy Charles Ramsey." He does.

He arrived at 2100 last November.

"I've heard it said that children are afraid of the dark and men are afraid of the light," Two Braids says. Probably the biggest obstacle imposed on his initial journey to 2100, he adds, was this sense of shame about his station in life. And that's not a unique concern, really. "It's at the point where I'm 43 years old and I have to own the fact that I'm not financially or physically capable of sustaining my own residence or supporting myself or putting food on the table and that as a man I can't do that. I have to face the fact that I have to go to a shelter to sustain myself — that's one of the big hurdles."

He walked past 2100 multiple times before sighing and heading inside. Seven months later, he'll now regale you with the minutiae of how 2100 changed his life.

But what could be so revelatory about a homeless shelter?

The answer, not unpredictably, lies in Lydia's photos and stories.

***

I was homeless before "homeless" was even used. There are defining moments...when a person realizes he has nowhere to live, no sofa to crash on, little or no funds, no goodwill to fall back on, no job...absolutely nothing.

So next comes shelters and/or street life, which can be brutal. Street life can become addicting, which is something non-street people may not understand. Always on edge, always alive struggling to survive, all the senses are heightened to the max...an extreme self-awareness, especially when you are alone at night, walking the streets or hanging out. With no expectations...no expectations.

I was in a position to see a street girl killed in Houston, Texas, and was almost killed by the same person who killed her. I saw a homeless man eat a raw pigeon that had been hit by a car, and the bird was still alive when he was biting down. I saw countless people spend their last pennies on drugs and alcohol and then go to sleep in cardboard boxes. I knew numerous people who kept pictures of loved ones wrapped in baggies in their coat pockets...coats falling off their backs. I saw people eat out of and then sleep in dumpsters. I saw well-off college students drive by homeless sites at night and throw water balloons and coins at homeless people just for the hell of it.

To say I always had hope would be a lie. To say I was willing to make necessary changes in my life would also be a lie. I reinvented myself into order to survive, to become "more"...more brutal, more street-wise, more heartless, more likely to hurt someone than to be hurt by someone, more unforgiving, more thoughtless, more cruel; more ashamed and embarrassed than anything else, even if I could never say it out loud. So being homeless for me was a nightmare because it also turned me into one.

Now I'm employed and I help those who are still homeless. It's like Haiti after the earthquake, where I'm pulling people up out of the rubble. I don't stop and judge who they are. I only know there's a live person down there, and it's intensely important I get them out of the rubble soon.

— Anonymous, from Portraits of Homelessness

***

Michael Sering probably hasn't been really all that happy about the few times 2100 has made its way into local headlines. He's the director of housing and shelter at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries, which took over 2100 with a faith-based perspective nearly a decade ago when the Salvation Army pulled out. The thing is, this shelter nabs news media real estate most typically when it comes up in police reports. There was that 2100 resident whose face was stabbed one night earlier this year. The Cleveland Police Department still hasn't solved that one. But the neon-blazed qualifier — this guy lived at 2100 — can't help but toss the shelter into a bad light.

"My sense of it is that 99 percent of the guys at the shelter want the shelter to be clean and safe," he says. "And they help us do that. They monitor everything. Like any group of people, you have some outliers that can give you a bad name. But overwhelmingly, they're good guys who hit a snag or a bad break or had some issue that they're addressing."

But not for nothing after all that, the place has a weird connotation on the streets and in the minds of even the non-homeless.

"There's the idea that is could be dangerous," Glenn Johnson says. The 55-year-old Air Force vet is an acquaintance of Two Braids. They often take to the road in support of Lydia's work. She's been captivated by their stories with equal parts fervor and curiosity. He says he was a might bit scared when first approaching the prospect that he might have to come here. "You don't know what the outcome could be. You could be stuck here forever. You could get into a situation where you can go back to where you came from. You just don't know. That's probably the initial thought: uncertainty." There are lots of men who tend to use 2100 as a flophouse of sorts (though it's not, Lydia cautions).

That second route in — the opportunity to crash in the emergency services bay ("E") and skip formal registration — entices those who aren't committed to 2100's desire to provide services and more permanent housing. Some guys just aren't yet on that path, Two Braids says.

But that opportunity for a bed in E — a long room that looks exactly as it sounds, bunk beds, far as the eye can see — is a sweet one. For better or worse, the prospect has invited trouble to some degree over the years.

In 2010, The Plain Dealer reported that, for instance, sexual offenders had been listing 2100 Lakeside Avenue as their address (those people, of course, being required to register an address quarterly or so). E offers a type of loose address for men trying to stay off governmental grid. These types, whom local law enforcement frequently had trouble tracking down, usually didn't even live at 2100 or had never set foot there. It's a near-unavoidable fact for a homeless shelter of this size and approach in the city.

Sering says that the PD story "was fairly complete and seemed to represent the issues and various perspectives. We did not have any response to it." Several state bills that would have ordered sexual offenders to wear a GPS device until they reported a permanent address died in the House's Criminal Justice Committee over the past few years.

"We have a good relationship and regular communication with law enforcement for guys that are actually appropriately at the shelter and can document via our census data who is here and who is not," Sering adds.

The shelter deals with what it can. And by that, more often than not, it's the men themselves who deal with it.

"The guys here are the biggest self-advocates," Sering says. "They did 168,000 hours of service last year. These guys are giving back when most people would think that they wouldn't have anything to give. I think that goes a long way to how people think about people who are homeless."

***

Two Braids has to get back to work. There's a guy in the bathroom who needs help cleaning himself. This is one facet of what it means to live and work at 2100. Resources are scarce, of course, at a place like this. Government funding comes by way of Cuyahoga County, the city of Cleveland, the Veterans' Administration, FEMA and HUD. The VA cash is the only source that's increased along with shelter demand and inflation; the city of Cleveland's chip-in has remained steady. The other governmental agencies have let funding sour over time.

The men pick up the slack every day.

Lydia, by turns both eloquent and speechless, sees faith borne out in nearly every action here (she's notably ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio). As more men come streaming down the hallway toward Central Intake, her eyes touch down on each one of them.

"I was really struck by Studs Terkel. He wrote a few books, like Working People. It was the everyday that was interesting. That's what is interesting for me," she says as we continue on through 2100's hallways. She casts her hand toward the portraits on the walls. "The longer I stayed here — and I've worked or volunteered in this field for about 15 years — I've realized that something significant is happening here that most people have no idea of. Poverty is so overlooked in our culture, and it's huge. It's getting to be more of a subculture; it's getting further away from mainstream culture. People kind of look out for themselves, got each other's backs. The sense is other people don't have their backs."

In here, within these walls and beneath the gaze contained in countless of Lydia's photos, men watch out for each other. It's a mandate, almost. To a point, 2100 ensures a level of comfort that gets them off the streets and looking forward. But most guys caution that 2100 isn't too comfortable. The whole mechanism of this homeless shelter is based on the idea of "transitional housing" (i.e., these guys aren't supposed to just live here). Comfortable, but not too comfortable, they say.

In 2013, 4,070 different men passed through the shelter (1,670 had never been there before). That was the first year since 2009 that 2100 had seen a drop in sheer annual numbers. But as recently as 2009, when the shelter housed 2,939 men, the notion of reaching and then hovering above the 4,000 mark was unimaginable.

The trend very clearly follows the economic recession, post-housing bubble. The homeless population grew in Cleveland and in most other cities. Parents were forced to let adult children go, often to disastrous results. The homeless, a rather indefinable term, as it were, began to comprise all sorts of once unthinkable demographics.

The average stay at 2100 is 35 days, which has slowly decreased from a recent high of 60 in 2007. People are moving on more quickly. Ideally, they're utilizing services provided at 2100 and moving into a rental unit somewhere in Cleveland. At worst, they're hitting the road for unknown pastures. Lydia hopes they all take something away from the services offered at 2100.

It's a far cry to be living on the streets and panhandling at Public Square than to be setting up a new life at 2100. The vast canyon of conscious decisions lies in between.

So what brought Lydia to these front lines, to the edge of homelessness and the precipice of hope? What brought about the photos, the humanity?

"It comes from my faith perspective, in the end. That and Studs Terkel," she says with a cheery laugh.

***

I'm 19, one of the youngest people here, and my 3rd time in a shelter. Before 2100, I was at Project Hope in Painesville, and before that Union Mission in Norfolk, Virginia — I got left there by people who I thought were my friends.

I've been in shelters because I have nowhere to go. Mom and Dad have been divorced since I was 4 and I've bounced back and forth between parents since then.

I was kicked out of my room. They gave my room to my older step-sister. My stepdad had me sleep on a couch and wanted me to get a job and give half the paycheck to him — just for sleeping on a couch. Instead, I'd hang out with my friends until late at night. Me and my stepdad have never gotten along.

I was in the Fairport Harbor School District — a small district, just about 35 kids in the graduating classes. I quit school in the 11th grade. No one seemed to notice.

I don't have a drug or alcohol problem. Now I work for MX Energy, signing people up for lower gas bills. I'm told I will be going to G.A.P. Youth Assistance Program, to help me with housing. That was supposed to be a month ago. I just want to get out of here.

— Jeremy Moses, from Portraits of Homelessness

***

Any walk through Public Square might reveal what appears to be the homeless population. But any walk through 2100 shows that it's a bit more complex. The homeless fall into cement backdrops outside of places like 2100. Here, though, the rooms burst with life — both light and dark in this sort of metaphorical sense. Faith is a big deal at 2100, though it's not forced on the men per se. Often, they do find themselves drawn to and willingly discussing the teachings of Jesus Christ. Many of them say that there was nothing left for them, no one to turn to.

"Early on, I was struck by these individuals. I thought that someone needs to hear this and someone needs to see this person's face. It wasn't getting out," Lydia says. She's shot photography for many years, and her social work became a natural outlet for the art. And it's this art — the photos, the stories — that opens the doors to this corner of reality. Two Braids and Glenn Johnson describe how invisible you can feel when you're shuffling along a lonely life on the streets. People don't seem to care about this broad swath of the population.

"I was struck by something significant; it's hard to put a finger on," Lydia says. "I started talking with the guys and sometimes I would say, 'Would you mind if I wrote this down?' They felt affirmed by that. They were saying something that should be heard. I started writing things down on little snippets of paper. I had a small point-and-shoot camera that I used intentionally for all the photographs. I wanted to retain the spontaneity of the moment. I would pull out a small camera and, 'Do you mind if I take your picture?' The formal stories were written only after getting to know the individual over time, and then I asked, 'Do you mind if I record your story?' and then I edited it down. It was all about getting myself out of the way and getting the individual to come through."

This is the part of the transitional process where men feel validated. It's too easy to fall into deep, dark cracks of society when living without a home. Glenn says that before he got to 2100, he experienced life on the streets for a very short time. There was an emptiness to it, he says.

"You become invisible. Sometimes you want to be invisible, because you don't want people to see you," Glenn says. "But as I walk by people, you may walk by them and see them or not see them — like you don't want to see them. I consciously made an effort to look them in the face and make them understand they're not invisible. At that point, I was invisible and it was very uncomfortable and lonely. It's hard to deal with. It's a shame that you see people just walk by them and you even hear comments they they're just lazy or they're just drug addicts or they're worthless. It's a tough thing to go through. I cannot imagine doing that day to day everyday. These people don't aspire to be homeless or invisible or mentally ill. You don't grow up and say I want to be a guy on the street drinking beer and sleeping on the street at night."

But those very people who wind up in that position don't often have the opportunity to lift themselves up — not until they come to a place like 2100, that is — nor tell their story. That's where the real crux of all these photographs comes in. And they're everywhere — the photos, that is. They're not just on the walls of the shelter or in a traveling art exhibit or on the memory cards inside Lydia's camera. They're now in the hallways and in the cafeteria and on the sidewalk out front and on the bus rolling eastward out of Cleveland and — well, it'd be impossible to tell if you weren't looking with the right eyes.

The homeless don't typically look very homeless. But they've got a whole life of stories to tell.

***

Lydia isn't the first person to come along and shoot photos of a city's homeless population. Her project focuses solely on men who've passed through 2100's halls and services. But photographers and advocates have arranged work like this all over the world. Photography — art, really — has always been seen as a method of raising awareness for the underserved in society. Lydia is part of the loud, though oft-unheard voice of the voiceless.

In London, former accountant Lee Jeffries embarked on a journey to photograph the humanity of the dispossessed. He's been all over the world now, seeking a sort of feeling that comes only when the light of life is just so nearly extinguished. He'd find flickers all over Cleveland, for sure.

Lydia has.

Portraits of Homelessness is currently on display at Messiah Lutheran Church, 5200 Mayfield Rd. in Lyndhurst. Lydia will join several men from 2100 at a special forum on homelessness at the church on June 15. These forums are important components of the work Lydia has been doing. "Often, we have a forum where five guys who have been photographed come and talk," she says. "You suddenly get the inside track of what is in a person's mind who stays at the shelter."

(A full exhibit schedule is available at portraitsofhomelessness.com.)

Just a few weeks ago, Lydia was at Messiah Lutheran, setting up dozens of framed photographs just as she's done at countless other showings over the past several years. Each time, she says, she connects with these men on a different and deeper level. Their photos line the walls of 2100, but there's something more determined about the time she spends arranging her exhibit. She says she looks into their eyes and sees truth.

"I think for some of these people, they were honored by being able to tell their story in an honest way — and instead of having it censored, to see strength in it," she says. She could talk for hours about these guys, these portraits of humanity. So often though, words fail the real meaning behind her work.

She looks around the cafeteria at 2100, at all the photographs that hang with their stories on the walls and all the men lining up for the day's lunchtime routine, and falls silent.

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