This Heartbreaking Photo Project Reveals What It’s Like To Live Below The Poverty Line In The US (20 Stories)

Published 4 years ago

“American Realities” is a photography project started by Joakim Eskildsen back in 2011 that shows the heartbreaking and cruel reality of living below the poverty line in the USA. The photographer teamed up with writer Natasia del Tora, and throughout the years, the two interview numerous people in the poorest regions in the country, such as Louisiana, Georgia, and South Dakota. Back in 2014, Joakim published a book of the same name featuring a collection of stories collected over the years, and they’ll make you realize that sometimes the American Dream is nothing more than an illusion.

Read about the heartbreaking reality of living below the poverty line in the US in the gallery below.

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#1 Terry Fitzpatrick

Image source: americanrealities

Terry Fitzpatrick lives in a tent in the woods next to a shopping plaza. Rather than being homeless, he considers himself more of a “city camper” and says his situation is temporary. Terry, who is sober, chose to remove himself from other homeless people to stay away from alcohol and keep his peace. Since his mother died, he says he is trying to get his life in order so that he can move forward.

#2 Elizabeth & Aleena

Image source: americanrealities

Aleena Arnesen and her cousin Elizabeth live on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. Aleena’s father is a commercial fisherman, bringing in the freshly caught shrimp Aleena would often eat for dinner. Since the BP oil spill in 2010, the fishermen are catching half of what they used to, and Aleena’s mother Kindra is scared to feed the children seafood. “The federal government says it is fine,” she says, “yet my husband is catching fish with black goo on them.” Kindra, who was one of the clean-up workers after the BP oil spill, thinks the government has procrastinated passing legislation to prevent another spill from happening. The spill has raised concerns over environmental safety and health, and ruined the livelihood of many families. The Arnesens have put their home up for sale and are thinking of moving to a fishing community in North Carolina.

#3 Ruby Ann Smith

Image source: americanrealities

Ruby Ann Smith lives under the North Avenue Bridge where it crosses the North Oconee River in Athens, Georgia. She shares the space with other homeless people who have made an outdoor encampment. A prostitute and a drug addict, Ruby Ann has been beaten, shot, and sexually assaulted. “I am so lucky I am still alive,” says Smith, half smiling, half crying, “I should have been dead ten times by now.”

#4 Grass Family

Image source: americanrealities

Mary Grass sits with her husband Shannon and three children, Spirit, Mystic and Decimus at their home in Thunder Butte, South Dakota, a remote community on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation. A military veteran and a skilled medical technician, she had applied for several jobs but wasn’t having any luck finding work. She was also taking an online course to get a Bachelor’s degree in Science and Health Administration, hoping that would increase her chances. Her husband was able to find a temporary job in the nearest town, Eagle Butte, 40 miles away, but transportation costs were eating up most of their income. With a lack of jobs, lack of housing, and long distances of up to 90 miles between communities, opportunities on the reservation are limited. They were relying on government assistance, including WIC, Medicaid, and food stamps to make ends meet, though Mary said their pantry was often bare towards the end of the month. Despite their economic hardships, Mary and her husband are trying to create a better life for their children by emphasizing the importance of education and the values and culture of the Lakota people, their Native American tribe. Her eldest daughter, Spirit, who speaks Lakota and dances at local powwows, hopes to get a basketball scholarship to the University of Southern California. The family would not be able to afford tuition otherwise.

UPDATE: After more than a year of being unemployed and struggling, things are finally starting to turn around for Mary and her family. A new hospital in Eagle Butte opened up job opportunities on the reservation. Mary is working there as a lab technician making $18.69 an hour. She also finished her bachelor’s degree. Her husband still hasn’t been able to find work, but he stays home and watches the kids. She says they no longer rely on food stamps, but they still use Medicaid and WIC for her youngest son.

#5 Quintavius Scott

Image source: americanrealities

Five-year-old Quintavius Scott stands in his great-grandmother’s bedroom. She often looks after him when he gets out of Head Start, a federally funded pre-school program for poor children. An only child of divorced parents, he lives with his mom, who lost her telemarketing job when the company relocated. She now works at a fast-food fried chicken restaurant while going to school. His dad Quinton works at a car parts store, where he makes $8.25 an hour but is also going to school for his General Education Diploma so that he can get a higher-paying job. He’s proud of Quintavius’ excellent grades and wants him to complete his education, so “he doesn’t fall onto the same path” as his dad. But he worries about his son growing up in Athens and facing racial discrimination, especially by police. “My son could be at the wrong place at the wrong time. He could be killed and nobody would care. A lot of good kids get killed and nobody does anything,” says Quinton.

#6 Dj & Eli Stockstill

Image source: americanrealities

3-year-old Eli Stockstill and his brother DJ often stay on their grandparents’ shrimp boat that sits in a lot out of the water for maintenance. Darla and Todd Rooks, longtime Louisiana fishermen, moved into the 40-square-foot cabin of their boat after the BP oil spill, because they were not sure they would be able to continue paying their lease. Before the BP oil spill, they used to make a good living, eating healthy food from the sea. Now, fresh seafood has been replaced by canned food, and they have developed a host of health problems, from muscle spasms to skin rashes and memory loss. Even the puddles in which the boys used to play seem dangerous to Darla, who fears the water is contaminated. The Rooks long to go back to their old ways. “I do not want to be the face of poverty,” Darla says. “I do not want to live on food stamps—I just want to fish.”

#7 Eric Ramirez

Image source: americanrealities

Eric Ramirez lives in a dusty trailer park for migrant farm workers in Firebaugh, California, where he shares a narrow trailer with his two siblings and his grandparents. According to the U.S. Census, 36 percent of children in Fresno County, where Firebaugh is located, are poor, and 43 percent of children in Firebaugh live below the poverty line. The area is one of the most fertile in the country and the Ramirez family work in the fields picking fruits and vegetables. Still, Eric has to walk more than two miles with his grandmother to a community center where they wait in line for hours to receive free food.

#8 Mike Shaving And Mike Jewett

Image source: americanrealities

Mike Shaving and Mike Jewett have just participated in a traditional sweat lodge ceremony, a purification ritual in which they pray to the Native American gods and chant inside a dark, steaming-hot teepee. The ritual was illegal in the United States until 1978, but for Shaving, who works for a program that helps low-income families on the reservation in South Dakota, the practice has helped overcome an alcohol addiction. Jewett, who is self-employed and suffering from debilitating back pain, says the ceremony helps him stay mentally focused. “If you concentrate on your prayer, you do not feel anything,” he says. “You think with your heart, not with your mind.”

#9 At The Poverello House

Image source: americanrealities

Pop music blares from loud speakers while people are waiting in line for a free meal at the Poverello House: a non-profit organization that has been serving the hungry and homeless since 1973. Billions of dollars cut from the state’s health and social services budget are expected to have drastic effects on fragile groups like the elderly and the disabled, who are increasingly living on the streets and relying on food pantries. “You can go to the Salvation Army; the Catholic Charities… you’ve got a whole rotation. That’s how the seniors in this town get by,” said a 61-year-old veteran who lives in a van next to Poverello.

#10 Rodney Woods And Joe Berry

Image source: americanrealities

New Orleans natives and cousins Rodney Woods and Joe Berry sometimes walk ten miles to a temp agency to look for work. Rodney, who resides in a two-room shotgun-style home with his wife and four of his six children, used to own a grocery store in the Ninth Ward before it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Joe, on the other hand, worked at a printing shop before Katrina, but moved to Texas after the storm. He has not been able to find a job since he returned. He sometimes sleeps on Rodney’s porch or under a bridge, saying he lives “pillar to post.” His dream is to be a rapper.

#11 Adel White Dog & Her Children

Image source: americanrealities

Adel White Dog’s grandchildren sleep in front of the burnt trailer as the family waits for help to arrive.The remains of Adel White Dog’s trailer, which burned down earlier that day due to an electrical fire that destroyed most of their belongings, except a family photo album Ramona, Adel’s daughter, found in the rubble. Adel, a dishwasher who supported her family on a minimum-wage salary at a local restaurant, lived in the trailer with her two daughters and grandchildren. Adel says even though it was condemned and the windows were all boarded up, “That’s what I owned. That’s the only thing I owned, the only thing I could call home.” It’s not the first time this has happened to her. A few years ago, Adel lived in another trailer that caught fire, killing two of her grandchildren. This time, luckily, no one was hurt. One of her daughters, seventeen-year-old Ramona Three Legs, was at a pregnancy check-up when the fire broke out. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) donates condemned trailers to Native Americans in an attempt to solve the housing shortage on the reservation. Since the latest incident, the Tribal Housing Authority has relocated Adel’s family to another FEMA trailer.

#12 Lesley Perez & Her Brothers

Image source: americanrealities

Lesley Perez, a 24-year-old kindergarten teacher, lives in a small two-bedroom apartment with her parents and her three younger brothers in the South Bronx. Though sharing a room with three others is a big adjustment for her after living on her own, she decided to move back into her childhood home to pay off her $32,000 college loan and $12,000 credit card debt she racked up on books, food, and transportation while in school. No stranger to hard work, she holds three jobs to climb out of debt and contribute to the family household. Perez, who is Puerto Rican, says employers are always surprised to learn she is from the South Bronx. She says her old friends from the neighborhood all either have children, have joined gangs, or sell drugs. “When I see them or I bump into them, they consider me as a white individual. And it’s not because of race. It’s because of education and class.” Though she comes from a humble background, her parents instilled in her that education is the way out of poverty. “To continue learning, that’s the only escape.” She just finished her first year of graduate school and hopes to land a job as a teacher, which offers benefits. No one in her family, except for her father, has health coverage.

Andrew, Charles, and Lesley Perez share a bedroom with another brother in their parents’ small two-bedroom home in the South Bronx.

#13 Clark Iron Hawk, 46 Years Old

Image source: americanrealities

Clark attends the powwow hoping to make a little extra money in the dance competition. He wears a beaded costume his wife made him by hand. Aside from occasional work as a day laborer, it’s one of the only ways to make money for people like him who live far outside of Eagle Butte. Hawk says the shortage of jobs makes life on the reservation difficult. Hawk knows hardship—his 16-year-old son died a few years ago from seizures. Epilepsy is a common problem on the reservation. He says dancing in the powwows gives him a sense of pride and spiritual focus.

#14 Jennifer Rhoden

Image source: americanrealities

Native Floridian Jennifer Rhoden, age 27, is living under the bridge with her boyfriend and army reservist Donald Monroe, who is from St. Louis. They’ve been homeless since June. He came to New Orleans and was soon put in jail for 5 months for collecting scrap metal. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong. It was trash.” He had to plea or sit in jail for 9 months for trespassing, which he says is “unheard of.” Jennifer worked at a fast-food restaurant in Florida but has not had any luck landing a job in New Orleans, where she hopes to become a chef. They are trying to get help through a non-profit organization, but say it’s hard unless they are addicts or have mental disorders. “If you are healthy and don’t have an addiction, they figure you should have a job,” says Donald. “But what if something happens, what are you supposed to do? All my jobs are manual work.” Donald broke his finger in a fight and is waiting for it to heal to try and find work as an auto mechanic. Meanwhile, they say bathing, finding a place to go to the bathroom, and finding food are daily struggles. “It’s the land of opportunity if you have it in front of you to begin with if your mom and dad had opportunities. You don’t have anything in front of you and just go out and get an opportunity handed to you. It doesn’t happen like that,” said Jennifer. Once you are in poverty, she says it’s extremely hard to get out.

#15 Manila Chipps & Three Children

Image source: americanrealities

Mateo Chipps, 5, rides his bike after a rainstorm in Cherry Creek, a remote community about an hour’s drive from Eagle Butte. It’s a good place for children to grow up, says Manila Chipps, Mateo’s mother, because they can play, ride bikes and learn about the Lakota culture. Though she also sees the endless problems that come with deep poverty. Jobs, access to health care, and educational opportunities are limited. Her older son Malik almost died of an asthma attack because there are no medical facilities near to where they live. “Sure, it’s our homeland,” she says, “it’s the people’s, passed down generations to generations. It’s our own nation. But we’re struggling, and we’re in the United States of America. Struggling.” She herself had no trouble finding a job when the family lived out of state, but cannot find regular work on the reservation. Still, she says she tries to lead by example, buying basic necessities for neighbors with the extra income she earns from selling “Indian tacos” that she makes at home. She said despite hardships, she and her children have a purpose on the reservation–to help other Native Americans.

#16 Whitehill Family

Image source: americanrealities

Danielsville, Georgia, a small town just north of Athens. Though the Whitehill family had received an eviction notice two months earlier and were planning to move into another house on that same day, the sheriff came by to let them know their time was up. Several workers tossed all of their clothes, toys, furniture, and framed photographs into a soaking heap in the front yard. In this picture, they were collecting their remaining things. The sheriff told them they had to oversee four to six evictions like this one every day. With one in 300 housing units subject to a notice or repossession, Georgia has the nation’s highest rate of foreclosures, triggered by the burst of the real estate bubble and the subprime mortgage crisis that started in 2007.

#17 Lawanda Leary & Reginald

Image source: americanrealities

Lawanda Leary and her son Reginald live in a massive housing complex for low-income families. Leary, an unemployed single mom, is planning to join the military as a way to get benefits and in order to offer financial stability to her son, even if it means going into a war zone and being away from her son.

#18 Edward “Juicy” Jackson III

Image source: americanrealities

Edward “Juicy” Jackson III, a trombone player in a second-line brass band, has lived his whole life in the Ninth Ward. He’s a member of the To Be Continued Brass Band. He says he and his classmates formed the band to avoid getting into drugs and violence. They started at Carver Senior High School in New Orleans, where they borrowed instruments from Carver’s band director. Some of the instruments were taped together. TBC has become a popular presence in the French Quarter. They also play in second-line parades at funerals of members of their community. He says he plays a lot at jazz funerals because so many young black men are killed, including his best friend and fellow bandmate. He hopes that playing an instrument will be a way out for him. “I’ve seen a lot and been through a lot and I know I have to get myself if not outta New Orleans, then outta this ‘hood in order to be successful and do what I have to do,” says Jackson. “As long as I am here, nothing is going to happen for me, there’s nothing here.” His band has toured with hip-hop band The Roots.

#19 Selear Smith And Her 9-Year Old Son Shamuar

Image source: americanrealities

Selear Smith and her 9-year-old son Shamuar live in New Orleans East, which never fully recovered after Katrina. “It’s a ghost town now,” she says. Selear is a single mom. She works part-time at Lowes and has no health insurance. Her family was rescued on the rooftop of a hotel during Katrina. They lost their home. To make matters worse, her father died in a boating accident on Father’s Day last year. Her mother is depressed. Her brother is mentally disabled. Her son is bi-polar and on heavy medication. (He shut himself in the closet while we were visiting and was crying. He said he wanted to see his father, who Selear describes as a “deadbeat.”) Talking about her situation, Selear says “It feels like we are in a hole that is closing in on us.”

#20 Nick Houston

Image source: americanrealities

Nick Houston, age 19, grew up with a single mom and nine other siblings. He lives in a neighborhood kids call “The Dark Side,” because none of the street lights work. He says life on the reservation has “too much drama, too much drinking, and fighting.” Last year, he graduated from the local high school, where he says the teachers are a joke. “They pass you to get you out of their hair,” he said. Like many kids on the reservation, he played basketball as a way out and received a basketball scholarship at United Tribes, a 2-year college program in Bismarck, ND, where he is currently an undergraduate. He said his experience at college has shown him a different way of life, “People around here (on the reservation) are just mean, probably because of the way they see their parents act.” One day, he hopes to get a hospital job and have a family. “My dream is to get off this reservation and be happy,” he says.

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American dream, American Realities, Joakim Eskildsen, photography, Poverty in the US, Us, USA
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