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These Personal Stories Tell The Hidden Lives Of The Homeless In Nairobi

There's not a lot of help for homeless people in Kenya. But a Facebook project wants to make their voices heard.

Posted on November 24, 2014, at 9:29 a.m. ET

This is Sham Patel. Earlier this year, he started documenting the stories of Nairobi's homeless people in a Facebook project called Homeless of Nairobi.

Patel was born and grew up in Nairobi and says he used to be "a product of the generic Kenyan middle class system." But one day he stopped to talk to a homeless man and realized his untold story challenged Patel's own impressions of the homeless. Patel was also inspired by Humans of New York, an online photography project that collects street portraits and short stories from everyday residents. Patel wants to use photos and vignettes to "break the stereotypes of the homeless ... A lot of people are skeptical of assisting the homeless, I wanted to break that barrier and go and talk to them directly."

Patel has been sharing the stories of people he meets in their own words.

"Kanjo" means local government workers in Sheng, an urban dialect of Swahili that originates in Nairobi.

Some stories are about solidarity.

Some are about overcoming personal demons.

Some are about hidden talents.

And some are about bygone dreams.

But not everyone on Nairobi's streets has energy left for talent or dreams.

This man told Patel that he saves up small change until he has enough money to rent a handcart. Then he collects hundreds of plastic bottles from the trash and sells them, for cents per kilo, to buy food.

"The homeless are the least common denominator in Kenya because they're not the people who vote, so politicians don’t give a shit about them. They’re ignored completely by the government," Patel says.

But helping doesn't always bring a happy ending, as Patel recently learned from a group effort to help Daniel.

After Patel began posting about Daniel, a donor funded a modest apartment for him.

Some of Homeless of Nairobi's Facebook followers became Daniel's friends, too.

They visited him in his new home. One gave him new shoes.

For a while, Daniel's new situation was working out great.

But after a few months, things changed. No one's quite sure what, exactly, because Daniel disappeared. He left his new home and Patel hasn't heard from him.

"We learned a lot from that experience. We told him, 'If you want to leave, leave.' You cannot force a grown man to do something the doesn't want to. Maybe his missed his friends." They wouldn't visit, Patel said. "He was scared and skeptical."

It's not a problem unique to the homeless, or to Kenya, of course. But Patel hopes that continuing to collect individual stories can shed light on what can best help a group of people who may be poor, but are still as diverse and complicated as any other.

"So many people have come before you. They've come with their cameras and their friends and say they will change things. So many people want to help." Patel says he's trying to find the best ways to make good on those intentions.

He's planning to run a "street store" where the homeless can come to choose new clothes or shoes or accessories that they need — and like. And he hopes "Homeless of Nairobi" will engage Kenyans not only with the everyday lives of the homeless, but with tangible ways to make a difference. If he can scale up, Patel says he wants to bring volunteers in to donate their skills, like carpentry or medicine, to help establish basic housing and health care for people living on the street. But it's a vision he knows is still a long way off. "I want Homeless of Nairobi to be more than just a Facebook group, but that's the only medium I have to get to the masses right now."

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