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Thursday, May 28, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Coeur d’Alene native Justin Wilder Doering puts face on homeless crisis in ‘Fifty Sandwiches’

Justin Wilder Doering interviewed 50 homeless individuals in 34 cities over the course of 105 days. (Courtesy)
Justin Wilder Doering interviewed 50 homeless individuals in 34 cities over the course of 105 days. (Courtesy)

In summer 2016, Coeur d’Alene native Justin Wilder Doering set out to fulfill a long-sought-after personal goal: “To capture the collective face of homelessness” in America. The journey resulting from this hope fills the pages of his recently released book, “Fifty Sandwiches.”

The book, Doering’s first, chronicles a series of 50 interviews that Doering conducted over the course of three months in 2016. Along the way, his subjects, homeless individuals from all over the country, shared their varied stories.

“I wouldn’t say there was a particular event (that instigated the idea),” Doering said. Growing up in Coeur d’Alene, he rarely came across homelessness. “But when my family would travel to Seattle or Portland, I would see these people just being completely ignored, even by my family – that instinctual wide walk around them. I was curious; no one starts there.”

At 15, he started formulating a fact-finding strategy, a cross-country road trip during which he could learn directly from homeless individuals all over the country about their experiences. The idea stuck with him throughout college; his senior thesis covered media perceptions of homelessness. “I was always intrigued by the dynamic between the general public and the homeless, how they’re treated and criticized by society in general,” he said.

He wanted “to travel the country and capture a more realistic idea of what homelessness is in the United States,” Doering said. “I wanted to see and hear how their actual stories and experiences brought them to where they were. I was finally able to do it once I graduated.”

In the beginning, his project seemed simple enough: first, fund the project; second, complete a circuit of the country, prearranging interviews at homeless shelters along the way and documenting conversations with 50 homeless individuals; and, finally, consolidate all of these interviews into one cohesive book.

Doering knew he couldn’t afford to pay for the project alone, but, over the course of a month, his successful Kickstarter campaign attracted sufficient support to fund the purchase of a 1990 GMC Vandura, a decent camera and more than 14,000 miles worth of gas. So, with the trip paid for, Doering finally set off on his road trip, beginning in Coeur d’Alene and ending in Spokane with 32 other cities between them.

When the time came to design and edit the book, “Besides cutting the trees down, I did the rest of it,” Doering said. “I (originally) thought that I would be able to get the book out in a year – it took me a good four years to piece the book together. What a learning process.”

In addition to editing all of the interviews together, Doering taught himself to use Photoshop in order to design the book and create all the accompanying art. His second interview subject, Scooby from Seattle, helped him figure out how best to use his camera.

Each story is accompanied by a photograph of the subject and a relevant statistic, the aim being to put a face to the numbers. “(It isn’t) just this person experiencing this cause for being homeless or this mental issue,” Doering said.

Although his original goal was to adequately synthesize a simple idea of homelessness in the U.S., he quickly realized that wouldn’t be possible. Instead, with only a few interviews under his belt, “It became about capturing the diversity and complexities of homelessness,” Doering said. Ultimately, he explains, “Fifty Sandwiches” aims to close a gap he sees between public perception and reality by fostering the idea that there is more to homelessness than being homeless.

The greater “Fifty Sandwiches” project also is a nonprofit organized for the purpose of furthering the goal that the book puts forward: raising awareness about the complexity of homelessness in the U.S. A percentage of the proceeds from the sale of the book will go to the Salvation Army.

To buy the book, visit fiftysandwiches.com.

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