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Photo Essay — From the October 2016 issue

Division Street

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Chances are that you are living the good life, at least in the most fundamental sense. You have the liberty to leave your home and the security of a home you can return to; privacy and protection on the one hand and work, pleasure, social encounter, exploration, and engagement on the other. This is almost a definition of quality of life, the balance of public and private, the confidence that you have a place in the world — or a place and the world.

In the years since the Reagan revolution, this basic condition of well-being has become unavailable to millions in the United States: the unhoused and the imprisoned. The former live in an outside without access to the inside that is shelter, home, and stability; the latter live in an inside without access to the outside that is liberty. Both suffer a chronic lack of privacy and agency.

Photograph © Robert Gumpert

Marshall prepares for another move, to a site near the former headquarters of Dolby, a few blocks away from Division Street, February 12, 2016. Within days he lost his tent and moved again. Photograph © Robert Gumpert

Their ranks are vast, including 2.2 million prisoners and, at any given time, about half a million people without homes. These people are regarded as disposable; prison and the streets are the places to which they’ve been disposed. Prison and the streets. The two are closely related, and they feed each other in the general manner of vicious circles, as the photographer Robert Gumpert knows from shooting in both arenas. Prisoners exit with few resources to integrate themselves back into the world of work and housing, which sometimes leads them straight onto the street. People living on the street are often criminalized for their everyday activities, which can put them in prison. In San Francisco, local laws ban sitting or lying down on sidewalks and sleeping in public parks, as well as public urination and defecation — doing the things you do inside your house, the things biology requires that we all do. Many people who lack homes of their own are invisible, living in vehicles, staying overnight in workplaces, riding the night bus, couch-surfing, and looking like everyone else. The most devastated and marginalized are the most visible. Even they try to keep a low profile: I walk past the unhoused daily, seeing how they seek to disappear, situating themselves behind big-box stores and alongside industrial sites, where they are less likely to inspire the housed to call for their removal.

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