September 2, 2014 — RIP. Matthew R. Barrett has passed away by his own hand, on his own terms. A sad, sad day. A giant of a man who pushed through unimaginable pain and life-long struggles to become an inspiration and grounding force to so many. You are loved and will never be forgotten my dear friend. (2/8/65 - 9/2/14)
One man's battle with homelessness and debilitating illness
Meet Matthew Robert Barrett, appropriately nicknamed Giant by his friends not just for his grand stature but for meeting a hard life head-on and being dubbed a big inspiration to all those who have come to know him.
This lead photo of Matt and Spike depicts a gentle moment that reveals as much about hard times as it does unconditional love. Spike, the dog in the photo, was subsequently stolen on the streets of Seattle from his heartbroken homeless owner.
During August and September 2011 I had the privilege to follow Matt around observing and photographing his day-to-day life. I spent quality time with him and learned that he's a walking miracle whose life's barriers have been high and wide.
He suffered from family abuse and rejection that lead to rebellion and violence. He has been in and out of homelessness, endured countless surgeries in a lifelong fight against cancer, lives with unbearable pain and has born public humiliation. And he's also a survivor, a singer, a poet, a working man, a philanthropist and humanitarian. He has even traveled the country as part of a circus. These are just a few of the things that have molded Matt's looks and his life.
When I first encountered Matt he was living in Tent City 3, one of three homeless encampments in Seattle, WA. I had seen Matt often around the camp but we had never spoken. Like many I had been operating with the false information that Matt was a burn victim. Early on I had become friends with Miss Meritta a Tent City 3 resident and close friend to Matt. Now back home with her family and daughter we continue to stay in touch by phone, email and on Facebook. In August 2011 Miss Meritta shared the medical issues Matt has faced and how his health was deteriorating, and that "people need to know this amazing man." I agreed.
During our first interview and photo session I was immediately taken by this down-to earth, articulate and interesting man — not the homeless man or the disfigured man, just this amazingly resilient human being.
I learned that Matt has a genetic form of skin cancer called Basal Cell Nevus Syndrome, inherited from his dad and dating back six generations. It began when he was just two years old. It has destroyed his family and has caused undeniable hardships throughout his life.
Tent City 3 at night - Haller Lake United Methodist Church
For the last three years Tent City 3 has been Matt's home.
Currently there are two encampments in Seattle (Tent City 3 and Nickelsville) and one on the east side in King County (Tent City 4). Two of the tent cities (3 and 4) plus 15 indoor shelters are run by SHARE/WHEEL ^, a nonprofit partnership of two "self-organized, democratic, grassroots organizations of homeless and formally homeless" individuals. Added support for Tent City 3 comes from Greater Seattle Cares ^ by connecting local communities with the camp for the provision of residents' daily needs. Nickelsville is not under the SHARE umbrella and is the only encampment in Seattle that hosts families with children.
Tent City, a primer — a short overview of operations, requirements and support networks.
In the darkness Matt sits in his tent
I have had the privilege of visually documenting Tent City 3's mandatory (and disruptive) moves every 60-90 days since 2010. During the last year I have come to know a number of the residents and each time I visit I seek them out to catch up on events in their lives. It's not uncommon to find a host of new faces and stories. Some, like Matt, have been there a number of years while others transition out for any number of reasons — from finding permanent housing to eviction for infraction of camp rules.
The people of tent city challenge the homeless stereotype. At some point each had a home. Some had jobs, good jobs. Some are still working. However, a small apartment is out of reach with the ever-expanding gap between wages and affordable housing. Many have an education and even professional degrees. Some are continuing their education now. Many have creative talent. And most have dreams yet to be realized. I speak of individuals and I speak of couples who now live and dream in a tent. Of the few possessions left it's their life stories and experiences that mean the most — carried as oral histories, written in journals or captured in photos.
Matt's is one such story.
After hours in Tent City 3
It's evening in Tent City 3 and a number of residents line up to sign on for a variety of "camp community service" tasks (a requirement for all residents). There is only one entrance to the encampment with a security tent that is manned by camp residents in mandatory shifts around the clock. Everyone is required to sign in and out. Operating under a strict Code of Conduct residents participate fully in the day-to-day operations of the camp from security and ground patrol to cleaning blankets to organizing food donations.
The encampment is made up of various style tents raised up on pallets and plywood — individual tents, tents for couples, and a dorm-style tent for single men and another for women used in part as a transition space for newcomers. There are larger tents for food storage, food preparation, donations and supplies, an office area, a community tent with a TV and videos, plus a covered area with a few used computers shared among residents.
Matt hasn't always been this lucky. Over the course of his 46 years he has had numerous bouts with homelessness — living on the streets and in shelters — in places like Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle. He's lived under a bridge in Los Angeles with homeless street kids known as The Trolls and he's lived in The Hole by the overpass on 5th and James in Seattle. While he speaks fondly of being "treated like you're human" at Sisters in Portand, Matt also recalls when he first made his way to Seattle around 1989 and his struggle to find a bed in a shelter for homeless men. Overcrowding, still a severe problem today, meant a lottery for beds and it was the luck of the draw if you got one for the night. Cold winter nights on the street without a bed Matt says, "I'd go find a heating grate somewhere to keep warm." It was around this time that Matt was able to begin receiving disability payments through Supplemental Security Income (SSI) but $637 per month was still not enough to cover housing and expenses, so he remained on the streets.
The irony is that in many cities it's illegal to sleep outside or in a car or to loiter in public places. Hence if your homeless and sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk you can be arrested, charged and fined — creating a debt you can't pay and a criminal record certain to make it even harder to find housing or a job.
Tent City 3 portable shower in parking lot
Just outside the encampment sits Tent City 3's portable shower under the watchful eye of a street light. Up to 100 people "get on the list" to share this one shower through all seasons, including the cold Seattle winters. Outside behind the make-shift lattice fence is a mirror and a sink. Portable toilets also known as "Honey Buckets" are inside the encampment itself, a little closer to "home."
What home once looked like for Matt
Black sheep, bullies, cancer, rebellion and perseverance
Tent City 3 is a long way from Grand Junction, CO where Matt grew up in a middle-class family with his sister Betsy, 8 years his junior, and his brothers David and Tim. Matt always felt he was the "black sheep" in the family and in his father's eyes he "was never good enough." His father, a warehouseman for construction firms, was abusive and emotionally closed to this son. When he would beat or berate Matt his mother (an RN for more than 20 years) was mostly apathetic. When he'd ask his mother for help Matt says, "Mom would say she hit me a lot more than dad, and it's because I was acting out." She once told him that "it makes dad angry that you look and act so much like him." Matt attributes their harsh treatment of him to his illness and the emerging disfigurement from recurrent cancer surgeries (more severe and pronounced than in other family generations). His first memory of what would become a life-long struggle with cancer was having liquid nitrogen sprayed over most of his back to burn off basal cell carcinomas. Matt was two years old.
In spite of endless doctor visits and procedures Matt believes his father never took his illness seriously. On a number of occasions "he forced me back to school shortly after surgery and he once held a machete to my knee because I had been limping in front of people at church." Matt was never allowed to tell anyone about his illness and had to hide what was happening to him, which to this day he doesn't fully understand. He remained silent even when ridiculed about his looks in school where he was routinely picked on, teased and called names like Frankenstein and Dumbo. At thirteen Matt was already well over 6 feet tall.
Young Matt's resentment began to manifest itself through stealing from his parents and getting into fights, which only fueled his father's anger, becoming a vicious cycle that lasted for years. In spite of all this Matt tried to excel and please, receiving numerous awards in basketball and football; 1st place for outstanding male voice in 7th grade choir; an achievement award for attendance; a Cultural Arts 2nd place oratory award; and many years later a certificate in carpentry and one for high standards of excellence in Creative Writing, Basic Computer Skills and Independent Projects in Publishing.
The cruelties and medical struggles induced Matt to become more rebellious and truant from school, leading to expulsion in his junior year. In final desperation Matt left for the streets after posing as his father and stealing money from his bank account. His dad turned him in to the police and he spent nearly a year in a youth detention facility because they "could not control him."
Not one to give in to adversity Matt tried for a better life, receiving his GED in 1982 from Mesa College. He proudly shares that he passed with a 305 average over the required 245 at the time. From here Matt wanted to go into the military for training but was denied due to his record. He entered the Job Corps instead. He was 17.
Matt's sign bearing the name of his tent
Finding acceptance in a pseudo-family
Hells Angels, The Trolls, Ringling Brothers and more
Although Matt eventually found a pseudo-family in Tent City 3 it wasn't his first. Over the years he would find several "families," always searching for acceptance — acceptance for who he is rather than what he looks like on the outside. As with real families we can't always choose our course and at times end up where we least expected.
By the time Matt was 18 he moved to the streets of San Francisco with some money saved from Job Corps, where this naive young man was taken for every penny he had. Without money or a place to live he would sleep outside in Golden Gate Park and in People’s Park in Berkeley, and was eventually recruited by the Hells Angels motorcycle gang. It was a rough and volatile existence but they accepted him for who he was and for a while they were "family." His stint with the Angels ended over a "girl who took a bullet that was meant for me," says Matt. She had loved him and although he was taken with her they never had a relationship. After two days of locking himself away agonizing over his situation he finally told them that, "if you don't let me go I'll make sure you can never trust me." And with that Matt walked away for good.
Another time, in Los Angeles, Matt found "family" living under a bridge among street kids calling themselves The Trolls. This was the closest Matt had felt to being part of a family in a long time. And it's here that Matt began writing his extensive collection of poetry on homelessness. A 1992 movie Where the Day Takes You is loosely based on The Trolls and Matt tells me that he had a small bit part in the film (a fight scene under the bridge). Matt's "family" was dismantled when the California Transit Authority walled up the sides of the bridge, a devastating loss for this emotionally vulnerable young man.
And yet another time Matt found "family" in the traveling circus as a roustabout with Ringling Brothers for a year and another 18 months with Circus America. He got to travel all 50 states "something most people never get to do". He tells in one of his writings that "it all started rather auspiciously being stranded in Amish country in Pennsylvania." He became very good friends with circus performers Dinky and Scott at Circus America and says "they were the kindest couple I have ever met." Laura (Dinky) Patterson ^ was killed in 1997 during a bungee-jump rehearsal at the Louisiana Superdome for the Super Bowl's halftime show. Matt will never forget his traveling friends and the absolute acceptance of him by his circus family.
Around 1995 Matt moved into a Single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing unit in Portland, OR. In mid-1996 Matt found "family" again when he met and began a long-term relationship with Cheri whose mother lived in another unit in the same complex. Together they cared for her mother until the end of 1997 when Matt and Cheri became apartment managers. After nearly ten years together and an eventual decline in the relationship, Matt left in 2008 taking very little with him.
He once again returned to Seattle and there managed to have himself placed on four long waiting lists for public housing. Although Matt has had work on and off over the years — a roustabout with the circus, a warehouseman, a shipping clerk, a bouncer, an apartment manager and for a while a counselor at a Seattle shelter — finding and keeping work is near to impossible when you're homeless, have obvious medical issues and your physical appearance is out of step with the accepted norm. His $637 monthly SSI payment was still well below what he would need to afford housing on his own.
A short time later Matt was able to secure a spot and moved into Tent City 3.
A look inside Matt's tent
Your belongings stuffed in a bag or two, sleeping on crates pushed together with a thin pad atop and a sleeping bag — raised up on a platform of plywood and pallets to keep the rain and other elements from seeping into your "home." Living in a tent during the summer is tolerable at best. In winter the challenges can become unbearable. Fire codes are such that no electrical burners or open flames are allowed leaving few options other than layers of clothing and blankets to keep warm. Though it's hardly the best or worst of accommodations these are definitely not conditions that encourage people to choose homelessness.
Still, Tent City 3 is home now. It's a place for community and camaraderie, a place to be involved, to eat meals, to keep yourself and your possessions safe, a place to take responsibility and a place from which to make plans for a better future.
For Matt a clear view of the future is elusive
At 6'5" and nearly 400 pounds Matt fills his tent with a presence that commands attention ... but the first thing you'll see is his face, scarred and disfigured. For 44 of his 46 years Matt has fought 11 types of cancer and 4 brain tumors. Two of the tumors have been removed, the other two he's learned are inoperable and the pain, constant. He's had 1,708 major surgeries to date, many for which he had to remain awake, and that number jumps to over 3,000 procedures when "counting all the little ones." Yes, you read that right. As a result of his illness he's lost both his sense of smell and taste, lost most of his teeth, has nerve damage in 75% of his left leg and extensive scarring over most of his body and his face.
At times like this our beliefs come into question. Matt was raised in a strict Mormon family and he struggled with their religion throughout his youth. He says he couldn't reconcile that the "teachings were out of sync with some of their hypocritical actions." At age 18 Matt asserted his right to seek his own religion and with that he left the Mormon church. Today he periodically attends a Presbyterian church as part of Tent City 3 community service. He's also found support and friendship among the churches that have hosted Tent City 3 during his stay. He says he doesn't claim a faith but believes in "a God," and adds, "He has purpose for me, there's no other explanation for some of the things I've survived in my life."
Let sleeping Giant lie
With tents barely a foot apart the sounds of tent city don't have far to travel. Here Matt's tent is located just beside the central area of camp where everyone congregates to eat, to converse, to hang out. It's a high-traffic area that makes it difficult to catch some sleep.
Having been inside the tents of other tent city residents I was taken with how sparse Matt's "home" is. He has very few possessions — a large duffel bag filled with DVDs (an impressive collection of movies), a small but broken portable DVD player, an old laptop, a tiny mp3 player, a small white stuffed polar bear in the corner of his "bed," another duffel bag with clothes and a pink plastic bag filled with medical reports, his GED and other important papers, old photos ... and his poetry.
Matt has written dozens of poems about homelessness and compiled them in a book titled A View from the Street ^. His collection includes letters from a number of people in office to whom he sent copies of his poetry, including a letter from President Bill Clinton.
Matt flips through one of his medical reports
Looking through one of the many medical reports he keeps in a pink plastic bag, Matt contemplates his many surgeries and the impact on his looks and his life. While two of his brain tumors have been removed the other two remain inoperable, and one of the two remaining tumors has grown 20% in the last four months. The prognosis isn't good.
Matt will tell you his pain is beyond what most people can fathom. "Doctors tell me there's not much they can do for me anymore." Even a hard-core drug like morphine only dulls the pain and the side effects from most medications are brutal. "I'd rather try to deal with the pain than walk around drugged up, still in pain and suffering the side effects." Matt says there was a time he was given heavy doses of morphine regularly along with other drugs to control the pain but then "the state cut funding and stopped paying for it." He was determined to make his own way off the medications and he did, cold turkey.
One wonders what the human spirit is made of that keeps a man going in the face of all he's been through.
Visual diagrams of Matt's procedures
Flipping through yet another medical report gives a graphic visual representation of the countless procedures Matt has endured.
Here I learned how important Matt's music is to him. He was told that the same part of the brain that perceives pain is the same part that activates when listening to music, and the same space can't do two things at once. Alone in his tent he puts on his headphones and slips inside the tunes that soothe and take him away.
And speaking of music, when I ask Matt to demonstrate his vocal abilities for me he smiles and says, "maybe another day?" In addition to awards received while bass singer in the choir he performed in a musical production and won a lyrics challenge for one of the songs. He chuckles as he shares his love for karaoke and how he used to surprise friends as he'd belt out George Strait songs. When asked what his favorite band is Matt cites The Band Perry and their song If I Die Young. We end our talk of music with him showing me a worn autograph from Vladimir Kochanski. They met at a concert where they were both performing and now there's a Scholarship for Piano Excellence in his honor.
Matt shows scars from where healthy skin was taken for his many facial grafts
There are few places left on Matt's body where fresh, healthy skin for future grafts can be found. His legs and his back are well-worn road maps that attest to all his procedures. He's had an incredible amount of reconstructive surgery on his face but limitations exist and there's not much more to be done.
Matt displays his Last Will & Testament
Homeless. Living in a tent with a few worldly possessions. Fighting his fight with cancer and brain tumors. Matt had his Last Will & Testament and Healthcare Directive drawn up — just in case. A friend of 20+ years who lives in New York is the person he has entrusted with critical life and death decisions should his health continue to decline.
At this stage one might ask about "family". Although he's been estranged from his own family for most of his adult life Matt did see them in 2003 when he attended his 20th high school reunion and again in early 2008 — emotionally demanding visits without reconciliation. Matt's last conversation with his father was Christmas of 2008, it ended with Matt asking, “I know I'm a failure to you dad but when have you ever been there for me?” His dad admitted he couldn't ever remember a time. Matt's father passed away just three months later on 3/17/09.
Matt receives an occasional gift card from his brother David and in 2010 he received a card from his sister Betsy. His mom sends cards now and then "saying I'm important to the family though they don't want me around, she's sorry for my pain, I'm still her son problems and all." They have never forgiven him for his 'wild youth' and for 'hurting them.' Matt in turn has never come to grips with their treatment of him, claiming they had their chance for reconciliation but didn't take it. "I have friends who are closer now."
A t-shirt and jeans kind of guy
Imagine owning just a single duffel bag of clothes. Now imagine a single duffel bag of clothes for a very big man. Matt refers to himself as a "t-shirt and jeans kind of guy" adding, "I hate ties, I always had to wear them growing up in a Mormon household."
GED and school transcripts
Among all the papers in his bag Matt keeps his GED and high school transcript along with a congratulatory letter from the Colorado Department of Education.
A shower and a shave in the elements
This is where Matt showers. There's a mirror and sink for washing up, brushing teeth or shaving. Matt doesn't shave because no hair grows through his skin grafts.
Until late 2009 Tent City 3 residents would shower at local recreation centers or gyms. The hours for access to showers were limited and not always suitable to work or school schedules. Sometimes getting to a facility meant traveling by bus with clothes and hygiene products in tow. This portable ADA compliant shower was built for Tent City 3 with support from volunteers, donations and through a partnership with Architecture for Humanity Seattle ^.
Reflections on a well-worn face
What do you see when you look in the mirror? What do you silently complain about? Your hair or lack of it? A few laugh lines? The nose your father gave you? This shot of Matt speaks volumes as he examines years of suffering, each scar tracing another surgery survived, another battle where winning is just the same as losing.
This is what he sees reflected back at him in mirrors, in store windows and in the eyes of strangers. It's not uncommon for the unthinking to just blurt out, "Oh I’m sorry I thought you were wearing a mask," or recently on a bus, "What happened to you, were you in a fire?" Matt would later say that life would probably have been a lot easier had he been in a fire, fewer surgeries and less pain.
Matt strolls through Tent City 3 to chat with friends
With Matt's future unclear we talk about dreams he's had that never found a place in his journey. There were several.
Early on Matt had a vision of being in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He had the opportunity to get a scholarship to Brigham Young University "if he graduated from high school" but circumstances changed his course. He also had aspirations to sing on Broadway but his dramatic facial changes from surgeries took that dream away.
His biggest dream was to teach and counsel kids but Matt says, "That wasn't going to happen," and makes a reference to the Mel Gibson film Man Without a Face. Interestingly though Matt has made numerous presentations to groups of kids and young adults, sharing stories of his illness, of being homeless and reading his poetry to them.
Matt recalls a time he presented to a group of school kids who echoed "we're just kids, what can we do?", convinced the problem was so big they couldn't have much of an impact. Matt counters, "It's the simplest things that can make a big difference. For instance, next time you go to Costco with your parents have them throw an extra package of socks in the cart. When our feet are wet and cold there's nothing better than having a nice pair of warm, dry socks to put on!" He tells the kids about the time 4th, 5th and 6th graders from Maple Leaf knitted scarves for every resident in Tent City 3, and the time school kids brought bag lunches and sang Christmas Carols. These may seem like little things but they're not small by any means.
A fellow camper seeks advice
Each time I met with Matt he was in the thick of things — interacting with other campers, helping to fix or lift something, or being sought out for advice. Here Maddy asks for ideas on soliciting donations for the silent auction portion of SHARE's annual Harvest Auction fundraiser. As usual, Matt had plenty of ideas to offer.
I met Madeline ("Maddy") during a Tent City 3 move in April 2011. An opthamologist by trade and out of work she had been in and out of tent cities. Her father had MS and her mother had had a stroke requiring full-time care. Maddy came to Seattle from the mid-west to be with her fiance Gary who was living in Tent City 4. They had promise of a room together but when that fell through and Tent City 4 was full Maddy ended up in Tent City 3. Most days they'd take the bus to meet downtown to be together. Maddy told me that Gary was in advertising, had joined the Rotary and was preparing to launch his own business. The last time I saw Maddy was when I took this photo. On a subsequent visit I was told she was gone although it wasn't clear where to or why. My wish is that Maddy and Gary are safe and doing well.
When something needs fixing Matt's the man
Skills learned while a roustabout with the circus, a warehouseman and an apartment manager come in handy around the camp. Matt is always ready to lend a hand whether to repair, to move or to lift when extra strength is needed. I watched him easily bend this metal chair leg back into position. Inspecting his work he smiles and says, "People are always amazed at how strong I am."
Relaxing with a favorite movie
One of the amenities at Tent City 3 is the TV tent that houses a small TV and crates filled with donated movies. Matt brings his own extensive collection of films to share with fellow campers.
A leap of faith with friends
A little lighthearted fun in tent city as Matt's good friend Heather leaps into his arms to show his strength and to sneak a bear hug. This went on for some time as one-by-one friends came by asking Matt to "lift them into the air". He happily obliged and everybody's inner child came out to play for a while.
Amanda, Matt and Heather
Inside Tent City 3 the acceptance for who he is wraps around Matt like a blanket, no words about how he looks or where he's come from. He's simply Giant to his friends and rich in friends he is, affirming the kind of man he has become.
As one of Matt's friends recently commented, "I do not see deformity, I see only a giant goodness and a giant heart."
A Giant in the shadows
In public spaces one would never take Matt for a homeless person. It's the disability he has to wear openly that attracts the most attention. He suffers verbal cruelties and public taunts, and quiet, disturbing stares wherever he goes — while the rest of us take our anonymity for granted, able to stand on a corner to wait for a friend, ride on a bus, shop in a store, eat in a restaurant.
Try to imagine how it feels to be evicted from a store or asked to leave a restaurant because you're frightening the customers, to have people move away to avoid you on the bus or sidewalk or while waiting for an appointment, to be called a freak, a monster or worse — all because of how you look.
Waiting on a crowded street
A typical day
On a typical day Matt, an early riser, would leave tent city and catch the bus downtown to his favorite coffee shop near Westlake Center. Here he'd spend time connecting with friends via email or Facebook and updating his new blog, A View from the Street ^, with some of his poetry and daily thoughts.
Most days would include visiting friends at various locations just to stay in touch. During our photo sessions Matt was busily working to solicit donations for SHARE/WHEEL's annual fundraiser. Some say Matt missed his calling as the ultimate salesman. Recently when Tent City 3 ran out of coffee Matt showed up with several pounds donated by his favorite coffee shop.
Matt writes for his blog 'A View from the Street'
Matt frequently visits the website of the Invisible Disabilities Association (IDA) ^ which has become a lifeline of sorts to connect with others who struggle with disabilities. IDA was founded by Wayne Connell, the husband of an old high school friend of Matt's, Sherri Mitchell Connell. Sherri and Matt reconnected online after his 20th high school reunion and have been fast friends since.
Matt cleans out his home at Tent City 3 for the last time
September 1, 2011. After a long wait Matt gets word that he has finally qualified for permanent low-income housing. He's moving to a Single Room Occupancy (SRO) unit in downtown Seattle. It took nearly three and a half years of being on the waiting list. It's a good day, it's a sad day.
An empty spot waiting to be filled
There's an empty spot where Matt's tent was pitched amidst his fellow campers. Today, as he moves to his own apartment, he recalls that when he first came to Tent City 3 three years ago it was right here, at Haller Lake United Methodist Church. Full circle.
YOUR WORLD IN A BAG
by Matthew R. Barrett
For a homeless person who doesn’t have much
There are few things about which we can brag
Especially when everything you wear, own, and such
Is summed up in your world in a bag.
That’s how it is when you live on the street
You learn about the meaning of gratitude
For little things like a jacket and shoes on your feet
When your world is in one bag, you have a different attitude.
Carrying everything you own on your back
Or pushing around a shopping cart filled with your stuff
This is when you know what it means to lack
And when the littlest thing is more than enough.
This is what I’m trying to express
It isn’t a joke, a prank, or a gag
When you’re on the streets you live with less
And learn to appreciate your world in a bag.
(Matt gave his pillow to a fellow camper before he left)
Matt says his goodbyes to Tent City 3 friends
After Matt cleaned and took down his tent he wandered through the encampment saying his goodbyes. No fanfare, no cake, no fuss. A few hugs and a lot of "Hey Giant, don't forget to come back and see us!"
Matt gets a Giant hug from his good friend Tiffany
Baffled by the paperwork
Housing requires paperwork and here Matt reviews and prepares to sign his lease.
A bittersweet moment as Matt gets the key to his new place
Getting a key to your own place after living in a tent for the last three years is bittersweet. Once you get the hang of it living out of a bag or two is rather easy. Now the work and wants begin — starting from scratch in a new apartment and obtaining all the things a household requires.
Matt opens the door to his new home
Good friends Marti and Dave create a warming welcome sign
Dave and Matt show off his housewarming welcome kit
When Matt moved into his new apartment, except for a small small stove and fridge in the kitchenette area, it was bare of any furniture or essentials. His friend Dave brings two bins of household items as a welcome kit to get things started.
The luxury of laundry facilities an elevator ride away
Just hours after getting the keys to his new apartment Matt does his laundry. Having a laundry room in the basement of your building, this is luxury. A fairly simple task like washing clothes used to involve lugging a bag on your back, walking six blocks to a bus stop, multiple bus rides and $1.75 a load. And if you're living in a tent chances are you don't have funds to do this on a regular basis.
Reflecting on the generosity of friends and strangers
As he settles in Matt reflects on the move and the generosity of those who have helped him along the way. Through the kindness of friends and strangers his new apartment was slowly furnished to include a futon generously donated by a woman on Craigslist answering my call for a bed. I do believe that Matt is finally "home".
A few weeks after this photo Matt flew to Denver to attend IDA's annual awards banquet, fully aware of the risk of flying. He has no regrets for it was the "opportunity of a lifetime", one he may never have a chance at again. Whatever the outcome on his health "it was all worth it" from seeing his friend Sherri Mitchell Connell after nearly thirty years, to meeting inspirational speakers to all the new friends he made along the way. An impromptu speech ^ about his life and involvement with IDA touched everyone in the room and continues to inspire.
Contemplating what's next with a future uncertain
It's a mixed bag of emotions for Matt to finally get a roof over his head after being homeless and living in a tent for the last three years. Now you stand alone in your room contemplating what's next. Living in tent city comes equipped with a built-in community, a safe haven and friends who become your street family. You see them come and go. Then it's your turn to go.
What the near future holds for Matt is uncertain. His health challenges continue as his brain tumors grow, the pain intense and constant. The last EEG confirmed he's losing brain function and his nervous response has slowed and weakened. In a recent blog post he shares that, "doctor says my body may just fully shut down soon without warning or notice."
Yet not a day goes by that he doesn't push through it saying "I still have things I want and need to do." And on this we can count. When I called Matt this morning about the essay I found him at St. Joseph's annual bazaar selling hand-collated photocopies of his poetry book on homelessness. He answers, "I've already sold enough copies to donate about $100 to Tent City 3!"
And Matt's story won't end here.
There are many who have been left behind back at Tent City 3. And there are those in Tent City 4, Nickelsville, in shelters, on the streets, under bridges, in tunnels and doorways. We're all the same at the core of our humanity — on the most basic level we all need food, shelter and acceptance for who we are — and we all need a feeling of worth to flourish.
A few momentos from Matt's bag
Closing thoughts from Giant
"I’ve done things in my life I regret and others that have made me proud and stronger. All in all they have made me who I am, a survivor and an understanding gentler person who hopes he leaves a positive mark on this world." May the "emotional and physically painful experience" of telling my story help change opinions and attitudes towards the homeless, may it "enlighten, inspire, move and motivate people to perhaps change how they see people around them."
Has this personal glimpse into Giant's life moved you, enlightened you or changed perceptions? Please visit Matt's blog ^ and share your thoughts or leave a gallery comment below.
Afterword from the author
While exceptions exist, I find many people fear the homeless and those who look different. They stand back and peek from behind a veil of misconceptions, a voyeur of sorts. They look down or away to avoid eye contact because that’s where the discomfort lies. That’s where we find the humanity in a person. If we allow ourselves to connect with it we may have to confront our own shortcomings or accepted stereotypes. We may have to commit to something outside our comfort zone and fight the hard fight. But the battle can't be won until we look each other in the eye — it won't be won until we make it personal.
Being house-less does not impact just a select few. More and more of our neighbors are just one step from the front door, ready to shut it behind them for the last time. Where does one go when all options for work, shelter and basic comfort are gone, when couch-surfing with family or friends is no longer an option? No matter how you slice it — home-less, house-less, shelter-less — it's about doing with LESS. It does not define the essence of the human being who's doing the doing.
This essay is dedicated to all those who are homeless and to Matthew R. Barrett (aka "Giant") who bravely shared his story with the world.
Thank you to SHARE/WHEEL and Greater Seattle Cares for standing up for our unhoused friends and for building bridges for people to cross to a better life. Thank you to all the organizations that step up to host tent cities and run shelters and the countless volunteers who show up in support.
Thank you to my friends at Tent City 3 for being generous souls and for welcoming me into their lives. Thank you to my friend and fellow photographer Marc Weinberg for introducing me to Tent City 3. And I am deeply grateful to everyone along the way who encouraged me, supported me and believed in this work.
And lastly, thank you to Matt Barrett for trusting in me to tell his story. Our time together added rich texture to the delicate fabric of my life and I'll never forget my time Walking with Giant.
|HELP & SUPPORT|
"What a beautiful work of art. You have captured the reality of what so many endure on a daily basis, it had to change you in some way. I was changed by the mere reading of it, combined with the photographs left raw emotions. I stand and applaud Matt and all those that have/are homeless. Though it may seem "we" may never experience it, I am certain many that are now homeless once thought that same thing. Combined with a life altering disability, nothing is for certain. Simply beautiful."