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I found my father living on the street

Diana Kim's father on the streets August 7, 2014 Image copyright Diana Kim

Diana Kim has spent the past 12 years photographing people living on the streets of Hawaii. But her project to humanise homelessness suddenly became very personal when her own father ended up living rough. Kim, a law student, explains how, in an effort to save him, she turned her camera on him.

My father introduced me to photography. He was a landscape photographer and I remember my early years sitting in his studio, helping him by cracking open disposable cameras and watching him make prints.

I don't have many photographs of my childhood because, over time, they've been lost but I can look back at the few I have and I can feel or smell it all over again - it's very vivid. It's a bittersweet experience when I look at the pictures of my father because at the time I didn't know what would happen.

I didn't really have the best memories of my father - he had pretty much left my mother and me by the time I was eight years old. He wasn't part of my life during my teenage years - I did see him periodically, but it was a very awkward experience trying to get to know him.

When I went to the University of Hawaii in 2003, I did my first photo essay on homelessness. I saw myself in a lot of the people I noticed on the street, and I really understood the struggle of not having a place to call your own. As a little girl I always wanted a permanent home, but after my parents separated I moved around a lot.

Image copyright Diana Kim

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Then one day, about three years ago, my grandmother called and said, "Your dad is sick - something wrong with his mind." She speaks Korean and I couldn't quite understand what was going on, so I went to see him. I hadn't seen him for years so it was a real shock. He hadn't been taking his medication for schizophrenia, and he was deteriorating physically because he wasn't looking after himself.

The whole family tried really hard to get him to take his medication, or just eat something, but there was no getting through to him.

It was as if we were speaking to a wall - there was no-one there. And that's when we lost him.

He didn't become homeless because he didn't have a home - it was because the building manager and the landlord were getting complaints from residents. He was becoming a nuisance. He wasn't a danger to himself or to others, he wasn't threatening anyone, he just didn't look very respectable. The lease was not renewed, and he was evicted.

It all happened really quickly. In 2012 I went to Washington DC for a fellowship as part of my law degree. When I got back at the end of that summer, my father was truly on the streets with no place to go.

I went looking for him the day I landed. I found him standing on an intersection, right across from the fire station. I saw this figure standing there, hunched over and holding a plastic bag. I remember approaching him and calling out and he just didn't respond. He didn't look back, he didn't move.

Image copyright Diana Kim

A woman was watching me - she came up to me and said, "Don't even bother, he's been standing there for days, he does this all the time."

And at that point my chest just constricted. I wanted to scream at her and say, "He's my dad!" But I realised that getting angry wouldn't change anything so I just turned and looked at her and said, "I have to try. I have to try."

And she nodded and walked away.

The hardest part was having to walk away so many times myself, knowing that I couldn't get through to him.

For some people walking away is the healthiest thing to do, but given my life and what I pour my heart into, walking away would have destroyed me. I had friends and family who said, "Diana, you can't get through to him, just let him go, let him be." And I just couldn't - because when I did, I felt like I was lying to myself.

Some days I just couldn't even look at him because it hurt so much to see him in that place. It's like watching someone die, slowly, not knowing how to save them. He existed in this other world, this other realm, where he was fighting someone, arguing with somebody.

Image copyright Diana Kim
Image copyright Diana Kim

The camera definitely helped me. I couldn't interact with him, so I would use the camera as a shield, as a barrier, so I could stay longer to watch him, to look through the lens and have some sort of purpose - to stay and document what was going on, knowing that later I would be able to look at it and really sort through my feelings. When I was out there standing with him in the street I felt really vulnerable and alone.

I didn't take these photographs thinking I would share them with the world, it was just something I had to do. I took them so that when I went home I could sit there and process what was happening. I didn't want to forget where he was, even if it was painful - I wanted to remember, to keep going back. I would sit there and look at the images and ask myself what I could do. A lot of it was just fuelling me to keep pushing and not give up.

In one photograph you can see his shirt is just rags and his arms are exposed, he's really skinny and his eyes are closed. That photograph was actually taken the day a hurricane was supposed to hit and I remember leaving work early and driving around trying to find him and get through to him, "Dad there's a hurricane coming - we need to take you somewhere safe, please get out of here, can you get in my car?" And he just would not move.

Image copyright Diana Kim
Image copyright Diana Kim

Because of his mental illness there was nothing that we could do. We couldn't force-feed him any of his medication, and because he wasn't a danger to himself or others it really drew it out. Then, last year he had a heart attack. That's what really saved his life.

I hadn't seen him for weeks. I had been looking for him, but I couldn't find him. Then my cousin called and said, "I got a bill in the mail regarding your dad - he's in hospital, he's had a heart attack." By then he had already been there for weeks and I didn't even know about it.

When I saw him lying there it was amazing, because he was the healthiest that I had seen him in two or three years - he was lying in a clean bed, with clothes that were the cleanest I had ever seen - hospital garments but they were clean - his face was clean, he had gained a little bit of weight and it was overwhelming. I didn't know what to do, I kept crying.

Image copyright Diana Kim

It was a miracle. I thought he was going to die on the streets, and I always prayed that I would be able to see him healthy again.

But my grandmother passed away and that's the part that always really gets me - that she didn't get to see her son in the better place where he is now. I have sons myself, and I can only imagine the pain that she must have felt as his mother.

That was the beginning of his recovery. Now he's a lot better, he's taking his medication, he has goals. He's in sheltered housing where he has the help and assistance he needs.

When he was in hospital without any documents or ID I came up with the idea of medical bracelets for homeless people. I bought about 100 waterproof USB wristbands which can hold important information and I've given away about 60 so far.

Image copyright Diana Kim

We take everything one step at a time. I've been helping him to use a computer and last week we did an application for a part-time job. I appreciate the little things, like going to the charity shop and watching him pick out a pair of jeans. All these things seem so normal to most people but they're new for us.

To see the transformation from where he was two years ago, living on the streets, to where he is today, is truly amazing. Imagine if you had a newborn who was completely helpless and vulnerable and then in two years he went on and got a job. That's the difference.

It's beautiful in one sense - he missed out on so much in my life and now I feel I am able to catch up, but from a maternal stance, even though I am the daughter. I am helping him to get back on his own two feet.

Image copyright Diana Kim
Image caption Diana Kim and her father are taking it one step at a time

I make sure I don't place any unrealistic expectations on him. I told him, "Dad, you need to just take your time in life, because you just came out of your own personal war." And he says, "Yeah, I feel like I did."

I showed my father some photographs of him that had been published in a local magazine and he said he liked them. He understood the intention behind them. "These are what I was," he said. "I can look at what I was, and my condition." When I told him I was making a book of photographs his response was, "You'd better finish it."

I've given him a camera that I used to photograph him. He hasn't used it much - taking pictures is quite a solitary activity and he's more interested in being social right now.

Image copyright Diana Kim

It's a great way of coming full circle - he was a photographer and his passion is something that I picked up on and it's something that brought us together.

I always tell him, "I love you Dad, I'm really proud of you." He enjoys that. He's in a good place now.

Once I asked him how he would describe me. He looked at me and said, "You are a really strong person, Diana, but you have such a soft heart." And that really touched me. Here is a man who I thought, for all these years, wasn't there for me - he didn't raise me, but he knows me.

Image copyright Diana Kim

All photographs courtesy of Diana Kim - you can read more on her blog The Homeless Paradise.

Diana Kim appeared on Outlook on the BBC World Service. Listen to the interview on iPlayer or get the Outlook podcast.

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