CU Boulder student helps bring light to stories of the homeless

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Keegan McNamara was scrolling through his Facebook feed when he saw a post that caught his eye.

One of his friends had liked a post from “Forgotten Neighbors,” a page that chronicles the lives and stories of homeless and low-income people.

McNamara, a senior at the University of Colorado, said he quickly became “enamored” with the page and its concept. After reading through each post, he asked creator Kareem Abukhadra if he could help.

Keegan McNamara, a CU student who is part of group photographing homeless people, photographed and spoke with this man on Pearl Street Mall. The man said he stays in Boulder for the winter because it is his hometown. “The thought of leaving Boulder scares the hell out of me. It‘s everything I‘ve known my entire life. And even when the nights get below freezing, there‘s not a thought in my head of going anywhere else.” ()

“I really care about homelessness as a cause,” McNamara said. “I think it‘s important to break down that stigma.”

Abukhadra, a student at Columbia University in New York City, said he started the project after speaking with a homeless man outside his dormitory.

“A few minutes into the conversation he asked me for money. I had nothing on me so I apologized and spoke with him for a few more minutes before turning to leave. That‘s when he called my name and said thank you,” Abukhadra said. “I was confused so I turned around to ask why he was thanking me and he simply responded: ‘Thanks for acknowledging me. People walk by me and ignore me every day.‘”

After that conversation, Abukhadra began to volunteer to help the homeless and started Forgotten Neighbors to help them, as well as those who are low-income, feel acknowledged.

McNamara said he was initially nervous before making the first trip to talk with and photograph someone. He didn‘t want to offend or bother anyone. Abukhadra coached him on how to do it, and McNamara built up the courage to just “go and do it.”

“As time progresses, it gets easier and easier,” he said.

McNamara usually approaches people who are holding signs, and not those who are turned away from the public. He‘ll offer the person a Clif bar or piece of fruit and ask if he can talk with him or her. After “shooting the breeze” for a little bit, McNamara will ask if they‘re OK with him interviewing them and taking photographs.

The project has reinforced McNamara‘s belief that those struggling with homelessness or poverty are like everyone else, despite the “ubiquitous stigma” that surrounds them.

“It really is, oftentimes, just a lack of a support system” that leaves them homeless, he said. “They‘ll just fall through the cracks and it will snowball.”

As time went on, McNamara became more involved with the project and now serves as its creative lead guiding branding and design.

While he is a math major, McNamara said that math is not representative of who he is as a person. He hopes to work as an entrepreneur and start businesses, while continuing Forgotten Neighbors as a volunteer side project. Right now, he and Abukhadra are recruiting people in other cities to be storytellers and are trying to market the project out to a larger audience.

Both men spoke about the importance of the “intangible” things that are lacking for those struggling with poverty.

“Many of the individuals I have interviewed have expressed that the worst thing about being homeless or low-income isn‘t the lack of food or lack of shelter, but being made to feel like nothing by those around them in society,” Abukhadra said. “Sometimes telling someone to have a good day and stopping to chat with them can matter a lot more than giving them some money and walking away.”

But, McNamara said they are also working to build up a follower base that can effect tangible changes for people.

“We‘re trying to tip the scales toward people who have been unlucky,” he said.

At the same time, McNamara said they hope the stories can change people‘s minds on those struggling with poverty.

“Our broader goal is to increase the public‘s empathy,” he said. “Go read these stories and try to internalize that the homeless are damn-near identical to everyone else on the planet.”

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