Culture

Homeless, wearing GoPros, capture 'life as it is rarely seen'

A San Francisco project outfits homeless volunteers with personal camera rigs for shooting first-person footage of daily life. "The goal is to build empathy," Homeless GoPro says.

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Homeless GoPro autobiographer Adam Reichart (right) and executive producer Kevin F. Adler get ready to record an NPR segment in the studios of local public-radio affiliate KQED. Homeless GoPro

Like so many in tech-besotted San Francisco, Adam Reichart sometimes straps on a GoPro camera to capture a first-person view of his adventures. Unlike most who don the wearable camera, he's homeless.

I've talked to Reichart on the streets of my neighborhood many times. Slight, with shoulder-length reddish-brown hair, a full beard, and missing and broken teeth, he passes out Street Sheets, a newspaper that covers the plight of the homeless and gets distributed by them in exchange for a dollar. He's friendly and soft-spoken and always expresses warm gratitude to anyone who stops to help, even with a nickel or two.

Reichart has told me a bit about his life over the past couple of years he's stationed himself outside a market near my home -- his dental problems, his excitement about securing a dishwashing job and saving money for a room of his own, a recent frightening medical diagnosis. But until he told me about Homeless GoPro a couple of weeks back, I didn't know how or why he became homeless, or what that's like for him day to day.

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Homeless GoPro autobiographer Jimbo made $39 an hour as a carpenter before breaking his back. He's been unemployed and on the streets since. Homeless GoPro

The project outfits homeless volunteers with GoPro cameras, which they use to film the world from their perspective.

Reichart, who has lived on San Francisco's streets on and off for about six years, was the first Homeless GoPro volunteer recruited, and because of the project, I now know much more about the handyman from Florida.

He's in his mid-forties, has three adult children, and was promptly robbed of all his belongings upon landing in San Francisco to scatter the ashes of his deceased girlfriend in Golden Gate Park. After that, he struggled to get a job, used up his savings and ended up homeless. He has battled "drug use that spiraled out of control," but now says he's been clean for four years.

The goal of Homeless GoPro, its website says, is "to build empathy, enable the non-homeless to walk with a homeless person for a few moments, and to explore how a camera lens associated with 'hard-core' activities like snowboarding and surfing can showcase courage and difficulty of another sort."

In video captured by Reichart, passersby shake their heads with disinterest when he tries to sell them a Street Sheet. Some ignore him altogether.

"I notice every day that people are losing their compassion...not just for homeless people, but for society in general," Reichart says during an interview segment of the video, which, somewhat predictably, has generated YouTube comments ranging from "I'm trying not to cry" and "Always give away, one day you'll need it... remember my wise words..." to "This is so stupid, give him money, and he keeps on panhandling for the rest of his life."

Homeless GoPro was started by Kevin F. Adler, a Cambridge-educated sociologist, author and self-described "entrepreneur for people" whose Uncle Mark suffered from schizophrenia, and spent 30 years on and off the streets, before dying almost 10 years ago at age 50.

"Like Mark, there are many people on the streets who suffer from mental illness, or drug addictions, or severe disabilities," Adler wrote in a blog post about the project. San Francisco, in particular, is known for its large and visible homeless population. A 2013 survey by the city's Human Services Agency tallied almost 6,500 homeless, with 3,400 of those living on the streets.

So far, Homeless GoPro has outfitted nine homeless volunteers ("autobiographers," in the project's parlance) with high-definition wearable cameras (the first participant, Reichart, has since become a co-creative producer). GoPro donated the initial camera for the project, a Hero+ Silver Edition ; all subsequent cameras have been purchased by the team or donated by volunteers.

The cameras, generally harnessed to a volunteer's chest, are visible to onlookers, but "most people don't seem to notice them," Adler told Crave, adding that when they do, conversations with the autobiographers sometimes ensue. So do unexpected moments -- like a 20-year old homeless woman named Jessica singing publicly for the first time, on camera, and revealing an incredible voice.

"In the rare instances where someone asks not to be filmed, the homeless autobiographer is instructed to turn off the camera, and we make sure not to use any of that footage," Adler added. "The homeless autobiographers wear the cameras only when one of our volunteers is standing by to ensure the safety and well-being of everyone involved."

Homeless GoPro is preparing to launch a crowdfunding campaign early next month for its first documentary, which will explore what's it like to live and die alone on the streets.

"We document life as it is rarely seen but often felt," Adler told Crave, "with the goal of capturing and rediscovering the raw human experience in our midst."

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"People see me like I am a garbage, which hurts me," says Homeless GoPro autobiographer Silas, a veteran who has suffered seizures since being injured in combat. Pictured with him is project volunteer Naoko Morikawa. Homeless GoPro

Another goal: to improve the lives of the homeless who share their stories. Reichart now has a page on HandUp, a crowdfunding site that lets donors contribute to their homeless and low-income neighbors. One hundred percent of donations go to fund the recipients, with homeless service organizations such as Project Homeless Connect, where Reichart volunteers, partnering with HandUp to ensure that donations fund the recipients' stated needs, such as clothing and shelter.

On his page, Reichart asks for help with his phone bill and storage, and expresses hope for a laptop so he can more easily work on Homeless GoPro, a project he says has given him a renewed sense of purpose and one he believes in because volunteers "are doing it out of their hearts I really feel." But he also has entrepreneurial visions.

"One of my future plans is to start a nonprofit called the poinsettia project, which will grow seasonal plants and sell them during the holidays," he says. "To get my business going, I need plants, pots, garden space, and a greenhouse. If anyone has the heart or the land, please help...I don't know where else to turn but to you, my community."