If you've never seen social-media posts from Humans of New York, you've missed out on one of the most viral projects of the digital age. What began in 2010 with a photographer's mission to take portraits of 10,000 New Yorkers and pair the photos with snippets of his subject's personal stories turned into an online phenomenon.
Combining high-resolution, close-up photos of people with quotes from them — or other information about their lives — has been so successful that the concept has become a widely used template for social-media projects, like Facing Homelessness — Denver. For two years, Facing Homelessness — Denver has used the Humans of New York model to highlight individuals in the local homeless community with pictures and quotes and describe how others who are more economically fortunate can help them. The page, which updates at least once every two weeks, has thousands of fans and counting.
“Crazy, great things happen,” marvels Amber Dinh, the organizer of Facing Homelessness — Denver. “I ask for one or two simple items in return for sharing someone's story. And I can typically get whatever it is I’m asking for that individual within an hour, whether it’s a car fixed or a hotel for that person for a week."
Dinh got the idea in 2015 when she happened across a TED Talk that had been given a year earlier at TEDxRainier in Seattle by a man named Rex Hohlbein. In his 2014 talk, Hohlbein described how he had befriended a homeless artist and had helped the man establish a Facebook page to sell his art. The artist, who suffered from bipolar disorder, reunited with his family after his children, who lived in Pittsburgh, chanced upon the Facebook page and reached out to help him.
After that experience, Hohlbein started taking black-and-white portraits of individuals in Seattle's homeless community and posting the photos along with descriptions of their stories and items that people could donate to help them out. Hohlbein, who works as an architect, was so inundated with donations that his office started to resemble that of a homeless service provider. And he's still at it: Facing Homelessness has become a nonprofit complete with staffers and a board of directors, and its Seattle Facebook page has over 50,000 members.
Dinh was so moved by Hohlbein's TED Talk that she called him from Colorado in 2015 and asked if she could start a chapter in the Mile High City.
Hohlbein enthusiastically agreed but told Dinh to “make it your own.” It helped that Dinh's personal experience with homelessness already ran deep. Her father ran a homeless shelter in Texas when she was growing up, and in 2003, Dinh almost became homeless herself when her two-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer and her husband abruptly left the family.
In that dark moment, something remarkable happened: Word spread at the homeless shelter that Dinh's father owned in San Antonio, and residents began panhandling to collect enough cash to pay for the first and last month's deposit on an apartment for Dinh so that she wasn't without a home where she lived in Austin. (Dinh's daughter recovered from cancer after two years of fighting the disease.)
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“They were the most unexpected source of help,” Dinh says about the homeless community in San Antonio. “I knew for the rest of my life I needed to pay it forward.”
Since moving to Colorado a few years ago, Dinh has done just that by giving out free breakfasts at Civic Center Park on Saturday mornings. Before she started the Facing Homelessness — Denver page in 2015, she could only provide for about ten people each weekend. Now, with all of the donations and volunteers who have come out of the woodwork because of her page, “we serve about 200 to 300 people every Saturday morning.”
All of the photography on the Facebook page is taken by Dinh herself. And though she doesn't consider her iPhone 10 photos to be of the same artistic quality as Holhbein's, she has mimicked his black-and-white style and how he writes personal stories on the Seattle page.
The Facing Homelessness brand continues to spread, with new chapters in Florida and Washington State. “Hopefully, one day, we can share so many stories that people can realize that these are husbands, dads, mothers, wives, brothers and sisters,” says Dinh. “If we can’t see that, we’re missing the mark.”