A Moment in Friendship Village
Finding meaning in fragments of stories from a group home in Georgia
I ended up in Georgia because of an unfulfilling job, and a desperate need to make money. At that point in my life I had little professional success as a photographer, and even less room to say no. So in spite of my lack of enthusiasm about my the job that brought me there, I decided to make the best of my time in Georgia and find a personal project to work on.
Prior to this I spent my time mostly as a street photographer, but this was the first time I really embedded myself within a group of subjects. I visited Friendship Village nearly a dozen times over two summer months in 2014. A colleague steered me to the door, but it was up to me to figure out how to navigate what was a new and confusing environment, and my role within it.
The following is my best attempt to relate the stories I was told and the moments I witnessed.
The typical model for group homes — supportive care environments and communities for people living with various forms of chronic mental or physical disability — often involves a 24-hour on-site staff.
Friendship Village operates differently. Comprised to two rows of apartments separated by a small parking lot, there are no 24-hour on-onsite monitors, no one to keep watch over the people living there. Residents are afforded modest grocery stipends, participation in regular group therapy, access to daytime facilities, but otherwise are left to live their lives. An off-site support staff is on call in the event of an emergency, and any prescribed medications are provided by medical support staff who show up at regular intervals. This independence affords residents an uncommon amount of freedom compared to other people in their situation, which has earned the Village a reputation as one of the best group homes in the region, among residents and caregivers alike.
“There is a conscious decision to abandon [hope] and accept that it will only get worse. You don’t want hope, because it breaks you down. Hope is a bad option.” -Pearl
The first person I met at Friendship Village was Pearl. Born Jerry Rainwater, he adopted his new name upon entering the Village, as a way of protecting his identity from small town gossip. Pearl comes from an affluent Southern family. A lifelong closeness to his mother offered Pearl some degree of shelter as the first of the psychotic breaks begin to occur at age 22. These episodes would eventually become more consistent and long-lasting, along with their effect on his life. Between periods of institutionalization, Pearl encountered eras of stability that allowed him attend college and start working as an interior and floral designer.
At his home at Friendship Village, the tables were strewn with partially completed art projects, creating the impression of a tinkerer’s workshop. Dominating one long wall of Pearl’s living room was a massive collage charting the course of his mental illness. This was no nostalgic decoration, but a homemade tool for visualizing and understanding the course of his own mental illness, and for learning to cope with it.
Despite his bleak outlook, Pearl was one of the most social members of the Village, an elder who knew everyone (and everyone’s business). Prone to long conversations in his drawn out Savannah drawl, time with him was filled with lighthearted laughter suffused with sincere vulnerability. Pearl acted as a community ambassador at the Village, facilitating introductions between myself and other residents. He was a source of insight, gossip, and hints as to how to get on the good side of other residents. It was Pearl who revealed to me the Village’s chief currency — cigarettes — which proved invaluable in making nice with the residents and hearing their stories.
“I hope one day I’ll be an angel in heaven.” -Donald
Isolation was a thread that connected everyone in the village. And no one exemplified isolation more than Donald. Pearl had warned that Donald would be difficult to reach, but he couldn’t help gushing about how dear the man was to his heart. Donald would be the first to admit that he doesn’t make friends easily. Donald had lived in the Village for a year, but he told me he’d been living in group homes generally for almost 20 years.
As a young man Donald was attacked with a hammer. After that, his mental problems started. Donald spoke slow. He would often grow tired, and lose his place in a conversation. At the coda of a story he was telling, he’d calmly announce that he was sleepy, and walk back to his room to take a nap.
When Donald smoked, he’d remove the filter, leaving a gap in the cigarette that whistled when he drew a drag. Donald had no family, and never had visitors. He spent much of his time alone, confused, disconnected. Yet he possessed a rare and positive outlook. “God will bless me,” he said. “I hope one day I’ll be an angel in heaven.” Asked if there a was anything he wished he had in the here and now, he responded, “a little bit of money for cigarettes.”
“If it wasn’t for Friendship Village and places like it, I don’t know what I would do.” -Angela
After battling mental illness for nearly 20 years, Angela was hoping to get back on her feet and go to school to become a writer. Or maybe a nurse. Or a clothing designer. To hear her tell it, the Village was the most wonderful place on Earth, a home to call her own and a place where her grand kids could come to see her. For Angela, the Village served as a platform for a life that many people take for granted: with family, stability, perhaps even purpose. “Other people overlook the simple things they get,” She said. “When you have mental illness you deal with things in a different way. Your elevator doesn’t go to the top.”
“I’m just looking to find a home.” -Jaime
Couches were often occupied by newcomers like Jaime, who introduced himself as Shadow. He was at the Village hoping to qualify for residency, doing chores for residents in exchange for a place to sleep in the mean time. He was full of stories of past exploits, including a harrowing tale of running meth dealers out of his hometown. He wouldn’t say which town it was, but nevertheless he was proud of having done his part to “keep it clean.” Within a week though, he’d been run out of the Village amid allegations of T. It was never made clear whether the allegations were true or not. But either way, no more Shadow.
“Our diseases are just as real as Cancer.” -Kalina
A few days later, Shadow’s 18-year-old daughter Kalina arrived. She’d slink into a room to watch everyone talk, silently appraising the situation like someone who has learned through enduring. I soon found out she was more than just a visitor, claiming to be estranged daughter of Shadow, and had begun trying to find residency there herself after he had been forced out. “This apartment complex is like a little family,” she said. “We understand each other because we’ve all been through trauma.” Within a week she’d also vanished from Friendship Village, and I never saw her again.
“When I hear the Voices they usually tell me to hurt myself .” -Jimmy
“Jimmy cut himself.” Pearl related the news with an air of sadness and familiarity. Though a familiar enough event to everybody there, this was a development that had the entire Village buzzing. Jimmy was resting in the Crisis Stabilization Unit after the malevolent voices had driven him to nick an artery in his arm, albeit worse than intended.
Events like this are a part of reality in a place like the Village. Scandalous chatter made up a major part of the day to day — stories about drug use, theft, panhandling for cigarette money. The cycle of interpersonal gripes and gossip circulated the halls as a revolving cast of characters made their way into and out of the place.
Jimmy agreed to be photographed because he wanted people who don’t suffer from mental illness to better understand. He spoke at length about how society assumes that people with mental illness are always dangerous, an impression that creates an isolating feedback loop. While he craves friends, he holds close to the Village out of anxiety about how people outside may treat him, despite knowing that this only furthers the cycle.
Though isolated, Jimmy was not alone. He lived with his wife, Brittany, who had moved to the Village following her own diagnosis of clinical depression and bipolar disorder.
Jimmy and Brittany met at the Village. Together they shared the wish of starting a family. Inter-resident romance is discouraged though, so they had to see one another secretly until tying the knot, which allowed them the right to share a one-bedroom apartment. While living within the group home system, before having a child they must first pass a set of psychological evaluations and move to a facility that allows children to live on-site. Friendship Village is for adults only.
Until then, they rehearse with a life-size doll they’ve named Sarah Pearl. They would speak to her softly, handle her with the utmost care, and in those moments it was clear how much they wanted to love.
“We’re a different kind of family.” -Brittany
As a culture, we have a massive social stigma related to people who suffer from psychological and mental disabilities. I struggled with its influence myself. There were times I reflexively wondered if I was safe, whether I was being told the truth or something borne of a delusion. Then there were other moments when I felt that I was being shown a level of trust and vulnerability unlike anything I’m used to in most other areas of my life.
I bought my way into Friendship Village with cigarettes and smiles, hoping to find some understanding of truth. Instead, two years and over a dozen edits later, I still doubt these photos, my understanding of them, or my place to even speak on what I saw and experienced. Yet, to this day, Pearl still calls, and from time to time I get texts from him about how he believes in me, or how he’s overcoming some obstacle. Some of the residents have moved on, but many still reside there.
I showed up at the Village wanting to learn what life there was like, hoping to come to an understanding, if possible, of the issues they might be facing. But ultimately all I have are questions without answers, and a collection of moments with people who live every day in a place where the complex and conflicting emotions at play brought tears to my eyes most nights after leaving. A place entangled in layers of complication and contradiction that confound me to this day. A place that’s supposed to represent the best option for those who might otherwise be unable to find shelter, let alone a home.
If you are interested in learning more about ways to directly connect with people suffering from Psychological Disabilities please consider looking into Microboards, volunteer organizations that seek to facilitate the growth of relationships between people living inside the assisted care situations, and those living outside the system. Sadly there currently isn’t a National Microboard Directory, but if you’d like to get involved searching for Microboards in your community is a good place to start.