The recession hit Louis “Kengi” Carr particularly hard, and the Santa Monica, California, native quickly found himself on the streets of Los Angeles, where he remained homeless for 29 months (a full two and a half years). That was seven years ago and even though the recession officially ended in 2009, studies continue to suggest that most Americans are a single paycheck away from living on the streets themselves. In other words, it is surprisingly easy to fall into the spiral that leads to homelessness. Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder to return to stable housing. Learning he was HIV-positive while on the streets added another barrier to Carr’s own attempts to do so.
“I think people would be surprised to know that homeless individuals with HIV have a much greater burden to remain or even make it into care,” Carr says. “Housing is the large obstacle, along with transportation — and, most likely, not having a cell phone. However, the amount [of] stigma, disrespect, and discrimination homeless individuals face on a daily basis from the very places they must turn to for support are greater burdens and can make someone feel like there’s no hope for them. This sort of stigma, disrespect, and discrimination is also present within the ‘community,’ the very place someone with HIV is supposed to feel safe and supported. Homelessness trumps — for lack of a better word — HIV.”
One thing that Carr never lost was the camera he carried with him while on the streets. Now Carr talks about his photography “saving” him.
“I always joke that my camera is my therapist,” Carr explains. “During homelessness, to avoid tickets from the police for sleeping in public, I’d walk from downtown L.A. to Santa Monica taking pictures. It distracted me from being cold and many times very sick at night. Photography became my voice and it spoke much louder and reached much further than I could. My camera became my safe harbor.”
In the years since, Carr’s photos have opened more doors than he would ever dreamed: he’s now a Getty Images contributor, a gallery curator, author of the photo book 29 Months, and he shoots magazine covers, red carpet events, and celebrity portraits.
“My camera is still my voice, my therapist, my safe harbor. It’s my HIV peer support. It centers me, relaxes me and reminds me to keep working and stay humble.”
He does a good job of the latter. He admits, “Every time I have the opportunity to stand front and center on a red carpet I giggle.”
Carr feels something similar about opening his own art gallery.
“My gallery is located on the edge of downtown L.A. and South L.A. Each day, as I walk to and from the train I walk past places I use to sleep. Places I once begged for food. I walk past people I provide support for. I never imagined my life would be where it is today, but I have no regrets.”
When Carr says, “people I provide for,” he means that literally: he’s actively involved in supporting others still on the street. He’s a little like the leader of a mountain climbing venture, pulling others along with him as he climbs toward the peak. Through his nonprofit Project KengiKat, he launched Do Something Saturday, where people gather toiletries and other supplies and deliver them to homeless people in their communities. But he doesn’t stop there. He also works with Being Alive L.A., which provides mental health and wellness services for people living with HIV. Carr says the group “will always hold a special place in my heart — they were my blessing in the storm.” He’s also involved with Reach LA, a youth-driven organization supporting black and Latino gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, and I-ACT, a powerhouse little non-profit that does amazing work in Africa, he says, and “every time I have the honor of working with or supporting them I walk away a much better human.”
“Having these opportunities allows me to be a voice, a vessel if you will, to share my experiences and those of others who are homeless and living with HIV. They allow me to educate folks and introduce a new conversation on how to support people in need. My parents used to say, ‘You can’t help anyone you don’t care about or bother to speak to.’ I couldn’t agree with this more. Too many folks are talking about and saying they are advocating for homeless individuals, but when you ask tough question outside their script they don’t have any answers. Until we, as a nation, are willing to see and fully admit that the old ways of helping homeless people — especially here in Los Angeles — has not and is not working and until the old guard is removed and replaced with a humanity before profits, care with compassion, and a true respectful and human approach to ending homelessness as we know it, then we will never see an end to homeless.”
He remains humble — responding to being on the Plus list by thanking us for, “considering someone like me for this amazing honor” — but admits he’s proud of Project KengiKat. “I started this small organization while homeless and today it is over nine years old with friends and supporters all over the globe. I’m so proud of my volunteers near and far who suit up and show up for folks in need without fail, expecting noting in return. I’m proud that Project KengiKat has ushered into my life a solid circle of amazing friends who not only embrace my vison, but truly love and support me unconditionally.”
Carr hopes to continue growing the organization he founded, transforming it into “a community space that includes my Evolve Gallery, providing space and support for homeless individuals as well as my brothers and sisters living with HIV and AIDS. A place where I can further my goals of empowering people and connection without bureaucracy through art, photography, music, dance, and education.”
When it opens, we’ll be standing in the line outside.
(Photo by Kengi Carr)