A homeless history album

Published: Sunday, Nov. 7 2010 10:00 p.m. MST

An April 1989 photograph has a man in front of a dugout. His dog is by him. "There are certain groups of men who really prize their freedom, they don't want to come into the shelter for a variety of reasons and in this instance it's because of his dogs," Atkinson says. "For many of our homeless friends this was the only love they got, from their dogs, and it was mutual. The wonderful thing about when you see dogs with homeless people, you know that dogs love unconditionally. They never judge people and they just accept them as to who they are. They never, for instance, say, 'Oh, I don't want to be your dog. You're homeless.' … I've seen animals, particularly dogs, turn homeless people's lives around."

A photo from 1990 shows a man holding a "Will Work For Food" sign. Atkinson says that when she sees a person with a sign like this, she asks them what they need money for, what their situation is and whether there is someone else in their family who could help. "Sometimes they are mentally ill, sometimes there is drug addiction, sometimes they are alcoholic, but sometimes they are really quite genuine and we can refer them to Job Services."

In a Dec. 24, 1990 photograph, a little boy gives money to a woman. The woman is on the ground in freezing weather and is holding a sign saying she is pregnant and stranded. Atkinson says how important it is to teach children to help, but also that in this situation she would step in to make sure the woman, if she was pregnant, had proper medical care.

The rest of the photographs are more recent — including one of Atkinson speaking as the Fourth Street Clinic when it was named in her honor in 2003.

Since she began helping the homeless in the late 1980s, Atkinson says that she has seen more homeless families with children under 6 years old. There are also fewer places left for the homeless to camp. In the past the emphasis was to get people into treatment. Now the emphasis, she says, is to first get them into housing. After they have a place of their own, good things can begin to happen. "In the last three years we have taken over 500 people, chronically homeless people, families and individuals, off the streets. They are in their own apartments. We weren't talking about that back in the 1980s."

The photographs are done now. Atkinson must catch her plane. There is work to do.

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com

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