The following photojournalism piece ran in the Nov. 13 edition of Street Roots and was displayed at the Albina Community Bank during the month of November.
“All these people pass me by and avoid my eyes. I want to tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘Look at me, I am not invisible.’”
This was my introduction to Melissa Walsh, Street Roots vendor. And so to tell her story I began by listening. I listen to her cry, I listen to her argue with her caseworkers, and I listen to her talk excitedly about her next knitting project.
I then I begin to follow her: to the food bank, to urgent care, to the mental health unit to visit her husband. Her days are not easy, and sometimes just following along is a burden that I find difficult to bear.
Now three months later I look at Melissa and the images I have created and think, “There but by the grace of God go I.” For in this modern day Great Depression she really could be any of us.
By photographing her everyday moments, these little slices of life, my goal was to tell her story as best I could and to help give a voice to those that are sometimes not heard. Enjoy.
– Leah Nash
Melissa Walsh is 30 years old and a Street Roots vendor. Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, Melissa moved from Spokane in July with her husband Sean after they lost their home to foreclosure.
Melissa and her husband married five weeks after meeting. She thinks their relationships has survived the hard times because, “Neither of us can bring ourselves to give up on anything. That is our greatest weakness and our greatest strength. We will not quit.”
Moving to Portland because of its bike-friendly reputation, the Walsh’s brought only what they could carry on their backs. For the first few months, they lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Beaverton, but the $535 rent proved too high and they were forced to leave.
Without a car, Melissa and Sean rely on public transportation and their bicycles. Here they are transporting food from a local food bank.
Melissa takes advantage of Potluck in the Park, which serves free meals to about 300 to 400 people 52 Sundays a year at O’Bryant Square. With 11.5 percent of people out of work, Oregon currently has the third-highest unemployment rate in the nation.
During a panic attack, Melissa is comforted at the local food bank. People with Asperger’s crave routine, so homelessness is especially devastating to her. “I’m like a 15-year old inside, developmentally and emotionally speaking. I feel like a teen with no social skills stuck inside an adult body.”
Sean Walsh, 25 suffers from seizures caused by PTSD, the result of an abusive childhood. Prescribed at least 15 different medications since he was 10, Sean has never been able to get his symptoms under control. He estimates that he has $110,000 in unpaid medical bills.
At the Open Door Counseling Center Melissa and Sean talk to their Mental Health Counselor. The center helped them find a new place to live, coordinates the couple’s doctors, and generally helps with navigating day-to-day life.
Melissa writes her feelings to help communicate. “I feel like I disappeared off the face of the Earth. I feel like a disappeared when my job did.”
On Sundays, their single day off from selling papers, Melissa and Sean often go to the Ananda Temple and Teaching Center for prayer and meditation. “We literally live on prayer,” says Melissa, who considers herself a Taoist Christian.
Into yoga, tai chi and martial arts, Melissa is drawn to the beauty of their techniques. Also passionate about knitting, Melissa loves the meditative quality of the craft and longs to make sweaters now that the leaves are changing.
Waiting for her Social Security Disability benefits to be approved, Melissa spends her days dreaming of bike shopping, shoes that fit, and a trip to the San Juan Islands, “When you are homeless you have nothing but time.”
After leaving their first apartment, the couple find themselves in Cornelius where tenants are asked to pay $300 a month or do chores to rent a room in a privately owned home.
Read Melissa Walsh’s piece: My story
About the photographer:
Leah Nash is a Portland-based with a passion for documenting the everyday and the extreme, which she often finds are one and the same. She holds a Master’s degree in photojournalism from the University of Missouri and in 2004 was awarded a Fulbright Grant to photograph the AIDS crisis in India.
Over the years she has received the Marty Forscher Fellowship for Humanistic Photography, the NPPA Kit C. King Scholarship, and has been honored by PDN, the Magenta Foundation, the Eddie Adam’s Workshop and by CPOYi.
Her clients include Newsweek, Mother Jones, GEO Magazine, The Fader, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Stern, The Washington Post and local publications including Street Roots, The Oregonian, Oregon Business Magazine, and Portland Monthly.
More of her work can be viewed at: www.LeahNash.com.