Photographer Allan Mestel and activist Greg Cruz, seek to change the homelessness narrative.
Allan Mestel’s photography invites you to look in the eyes of Sarasota’s homeless people.
Through Streets of Paradise, the Longboat Key photographer captures portraits with the goal of humanizing the homeless community and documenting their stories. The project began in January as a collaboration with Sarasota activist Greg Cruz. For a few days a week, they would hit the streets of Sarasota with a camera and a bag of cheeseburgers.
“Because Sarasota isn’t known for its hospitality to homeless people, we were initially met with mild suspicion,” Cruz said. “People in Sarasota’s homeless community are often ignored or mistreated, so they didn’t understand why we would want to talk to them or photograph them.”
The suspicion turned into openness when Cruz and Mestel explained that their goal with Streets of Paradise was to foster ongoing relationships with the homeless people they documented in order to bring awareness to their everyday realities.
Mestel said he shoots the portraits close to his subjects and always meets them at eye level.
“Photos of homeless can look intrusive or will look like voyeurism,” said Mestel. “I make sure I’m never more than 3 to 5 feet away from my subjects to give the viewer a sense of proximity and interaction. I’ll also never shoot down on them. You also see a sense of character in the way these images are shot. You’re hopefully seeing them as an individual and their personality rather than a generic homeless person.”
As Cruz and Mestel interacted with more homeless individuals and learned about their needs, Streets of Paradise evolved into a nonprofit with a two-fold mission of raising awareness through portraiture and encouraging grassroots initiatives to provide basic necessities to the homeless. Streets of Paradise provides a weekly feeding and have started collecting blankets and coats as the colder months draw closer.
“When we began our outreach last winter, the first thing we heard from homeless people was how one of their one own recently froze to death,” Cruz said. “She was about 60 years old. These incidents don’t need to happen, but they are out there every day thinking about how to simply survive.”
Cruz said the next big project for Streets of Paradise is to provide them with access to showers through mobile shower trucks.
“When we ask some of these homeless what their biggest needs are, they don’t directly say money or a job. Some of them go to a job and then go home to the streets. They want their dignity back through a shower or clean clothes.”
Mestel’s photographs can be found on the Streets of Paradise website but he would love the opportunity to showcase them through an exhibit.
“Sarasota represents itself to the outside world as paradise in so many aspects, but we want to bring attention to this particular problem,” he said. “Our homeless community need assistance, not judgment.”
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