By Andrew M. Seaman
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - When people read his story and see pictures of him throughout New York City, 25-year-old Derrick Cobb hopes it will change their perception of youth homelessness.
“I honestly hope people will take away the lesson of not being so judgmental,” said Cobb, who was photographed in spaces that are important to him, including the park he slept in when he first became homeless.
The pictures, part of a collection known as SEE ME, will be displayed starting this week at The Reciprocity Foundation in Midtown Manhattan.
“I think when people see the project, they’re going to think we’re rock stars,” said Cobb, who is a singer, dancer and model.
The 25 young people in the photographs receive services from Reciprocity, which has helped about 1,500 teens and young adults in different stages of homelessness since its start 10 years ago.
Taz Tagore and Adam Bucko started Reciprocity because the existing system, Tagore said, did not foster the spiritual needs and ambitions of homeless youths.
“We need a dream to catapult our kids,” said Tagore. “You need to care about something to make a contribution.”
Reciprocity’s programs include wellness practices that focus on stress management, trauma healing and recovery and college preparedness.
“Graduates” have gone on to become educators, activists and documentary filmmakers, according to Tagore, who said the program has some of the highest college enrollment rates among homeless youths.
The SEE ME project is largely the work of photographer Alex Fradkin, who became Reciprocity’s artist in residence in 2014.
The experience “immediately and completely blew away any stereotypes I had about being a homeless youth,” said Fradkin.
When he asked his subjects to take him on a tour of places that are important to them, several surprised him by taking him to visit their parents or their former homes.
“They have so much to say,” Fradkin said. “If I can shut up for a minute with them and just listen, they have so much that just comes out.”
Mahfoud, 22, who is included in the project, came to Reciprocity a few years ago after hearing Tagore speak at an event. He was photographed on top of the building that houses the foundation.
“I want to go to fashion school, but I wasn’t really ready,” Mahfoud said. He added that Reciprocity helped him with healing and counseling.
“The project reflects that,” he said. “It reflects that they don’t give up and that Reciprocity actually supports and helps.”
Tagore wrote essays to accompany the pictures. In her essay about Cobb, she revealed that he became HIV-positive at age 17. Cobb said it was a subject he was not comfortable discussing until recently.
After the essay about him was published on Advocate.com, Cobb said he was flooded with positive messages and even heard from someone who was inspired to reveal his HIV-positive status to his family.
“It’s inspiring and cool to have people reach out to you,” he said.
About 1.3 million U.S. youths live in some stage of homelessness, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. About three quarters are female, and 20 to 40 percent are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning.
Fradkin said he hopes the SEE ME project will send the message that “with some help and assistance - these kids are going to do great.”
“These are deeply complex human beings with dreams and aspirations,” Fradkin said.
The SEE ME exhibit will tour other venues and will also be compiled into a book, with all proceeds going to the Reciprocity Foundation (bit.ly/1det15F).