This editor’s note is a supplement to the feature story: No Place to Call Home.
Typically, Volume One aims to make people feel proud of — and inspired by — the community around them. It’s a role that was desperately needed when we first started, and is still relevant today nearly 20 years later.
And while we’ve periodically published feature stories and columns covering the valley’s tougher topics — issues like housing affordability, homelessness, substance abuse, racial disparity, economic inequities, mental health, and more — it is fair to say we haven’t truly stared those issues in the face as deeply and as often as we could have.
So this summer, after our experience with some of the more raw aspects of homelessness in our community, we had a responsibility to elevate this topic again, however we could, to hopefully help facilitate the challenging conversations necessary for potential change.
How this feature story began
Homelessness in our community is nothing new. But this spring, it became apparent that something was changing in Eau Claire, and particularly downtown; if not more prevalent, homelessness was definitely more visible. With multiple people sleeping in doorways and on benches each morning throughout downtown, we knew we needed to point Volume One’s lens at this difficult issue once again.
So in early June we began to plan this feature story with a longtime local journalist and Volume One contributor Julian Emerson — a highly respected writer on this subject. We knew another exploration of the topic would help us all learn more about the root causes and implications of this complex — and worsening — issue. With that, I immediately assigned our photographer Andrea Paulseth to find a respectful way to take a few photos of a woman I’d noticed that very morning, who had seemingly taken up residence on a bench on Barstow Street in recent days. Little did we know the circumstances that were about to unfold.
Why we took the photos
These days, reality is often obscured by more idealistic versions of life: Blemishes are blurred out. Imperfections are tweaked. Indiscretions are overlooked. The images we planned to take were intended to be truthful — respectful but impactful — and recognizable as taken in our very own city. We wanted to provide evidence of the alarming reality of what homelessness in Eau Claire can sometimes look like.
Andrea arrived, camera in hand, at about 1pm to find the woman lying on the bench, apparently sleeping. Not wishing to wake her and risk losing the authenticity of the moment, she snapped photos from afar with the woman’s face obscured, allowing anonymity. She then set the images aside so we could discuss the ethical implications of publishing them: How can we remain authentic in our portrayal of homelessness, while being sensitive to the privacy of individuals like her? Furthermore, how do we humanize the issue of homelessness without exploiting or misusing one individual’s incredibly raw personal experience?
“We were unsettled, to say the least. We felt heartbroken, disappointed, guilty, angry, and more. But while we perhaps didn’t do enough before, we knew we could do something now.”
Roughly a week later, we learned the woman’s identity. Her name was Marilyn Roeber, and it turned out, she died on that bench that very day. Word of her passing hit the news in a story by Eric Lindquist at the Leader-Telegram. It was then we realized we had what were likely the last photos of Marilyn alive, or possibly, the first and only photos of her death.
Reports filed with the Eau Claire Police Department indicate there were no outward signs of trauma, no indication of drugs or alcohol, and nothing suspicious. They affirm she was last seen moving at 11am that morning, and was found dead by 3pm. In between that time frame — nestled in a complex gray area — are these photos.
We were unsettled, to say the least. We felt heartbroken, disappointed, guilty, angry, and more. But while we perhaps didn’t do enough before, we knew we could do something now.
To publish the images or not?
Homelessness looks different for everyone. And we know publishing images like these of Marilyn can create strong reactions from multiple directions — including the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes that don’t take into account the diversity and nuance of the problem of homelessness and those experiencing it first hand.
At the same time, matters of life and death are sometimes what it takes to cut through public consciousness on an issue — especially one as complicated, and often hidden, as homelessness.
Over this last year we’ve all been reminded just how powerful images — and videos — can be. A striking photo or online clip can sometimes set in motion meaningful cultural changes. And that was the hope of nearly everyone we spoke with about possibly using these images with the story: that perhaps this would finally get people’s attention.
I personally spoke with members of Marilyn’s family and with those who knew her at Valleybrook Church. We checked in with multiple individuals across the Chippewa Valley — and across the United States — who work on behalf of people experiencing homelessness. The message to us was clear: If we published these images, told more of her story, and shed further light on the issue overall, that perhaps Marilyn’s life and death will have meant even more than it already did.
While Marilyn’s passing is tragic, it’s also meaningful in how we can work to create change as a result of this loss. So we’re hopeful we’ve done the right thing by sharing these images with the community, along with her story and the stories of others, to propel our collective understanding of this issue just a bit further.
So, may we not forget Marilyn, and those who unfortunately came before her. And through that, may we all learn more, see more, and do more.