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"I feel like I disappeared when my job did"

 Street Roots (USA) 17 February 2019

Melissa Walsh is 30 years old and a street newspaper vendor. Diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, Melissa moved from Spokane to Portland with her husband Sean after they lost their home to foreclosure. (476 Words) - By Melissa M. Walsh

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Melissa takes advantage of Potluck in the Park, which serves free meals to about 300 to 400 people 52 Sundays per year at O'Bryant Square. With 11.5 percent of people out of work, Oregon currently has the third-highest unemployment rate in the nation. Photo: Leah Nash

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Melissa Walsh is 30 years old and a Street Roots vendor. Diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, Melissa moved from Spokane in July with her husband Sean after they lost their home to foreclosure. Photo: Leah Nash

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Melissa and her husband married five weeks after meeting. She thinks their relationship has survived the hard times because, "Neither of us can bring ourselves to give up on anything. That is our greatest weakness and our greatest strength. We will not quit." Photo: Leah Nash

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Without a car, Melissa and Sean rely on public transportation and their bicycles. They estimate that their commute to sell papers in downtown Portland is almost three hours one way: one hour by bike, one hour on the Max and 30 minutes on the bus. Here they are transporting food from a local food bank. Photo: Leah Nash

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Moving to Portland because of its bike-friendly reputation, the Walshes brought only what they could carry on their backs. For the first few months, they lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Beaverton, but the $535 rent proved too high and they were forced to leave. Photo: Leah Nash

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Potluck in the Park. Photo: Leah Nash

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During a panic attack, Melissa is comforted by a worker at the food bank. People with Asperger's crave routine, so homelessness is especially devastating to her. "I'm like a 15-year-old inside, developmentally and emotionally speaking. I feel like a teen with no social skills stuck in an adult body." Photo: Leah Nash

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Sean Walsh, 25, suffers from seizures caused by PTSD, the result of an abusive childhood. In Spokane he was a medical assistant, but his condition forced him out of the field. He estimates that he has $110,000 in unpaid medical bills. Below: Melissa writes her feelings to help communicate. "I feel like I disappeared off the face of the Earth. I feel like I disappeared when my job did." - Melissa Walsh. Photo: Leah Nash


In this revealing and personal photo shoot Leah Nash reveals the daily realities faced by Melissa and Sean. "I feel like I disappeared off the face of the Earth", Melissa says, "I feel like I disappeared when my job did."

 

Melissa's story:

"I would like to start out by thanking you guys, my readers, and patrons of the paper.  Without you, my continued survival would be compromised. I am publishing my story so you can get to know me.

My name is Melissa Walsh. I have been homeless off and on since moving to Portland. I used to have a house, but my husband's uncontrolled seizures led to job loss, which in turn led to foreclosure.  We are currently seeking help for him at Outside In Clinic.  The doctors over there are working hard to try and help.  I am disabled with Asperger Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.

There are a lot of misconceptions about being a street paper vendor.  The stereotype is a middle-aged drunken guy who is too lazy to do anything else.  I am none of the above.  I am 30, female, married, a renter, and my husband used to be a nursing aid.  The doctors don't allow him to work now.  I have an associate's degree, and have tried to find and keep work to no avail.

I have many interests and passions.  I am a yoga and tai chi practitioner.  I study philosophy, and I'm a semi-professional knitter and spindler.

The leaves are darkening on the trees, and there's a change in the air.  The transition to fall has begun already.  I look outside my window, and the cloud cover is blanketing us with hues of grey.  I wonder when the seasonal rains will return again, their solemn drops nourishing the earth for the preparation of the harvest.

All I can think of is wool.  Wonderful, luscious and warm, wool has helped many families through the cold months.  Wool is sturdy and strong and naturally water repellant.  It is also expensive and the price is out of my reach.  And yet I still dream of crafting warm sweaters for my husband and I.  My life is mostly about subsistence, but somehow, I still believe in the power of the ancient tradition of knitting to make it feel a little better.  When I knit, I feel more real, more human somehow.  I feel like I am doing something that makes a difference.  Knitting is about hope, bringing comfort and warmth in every stitch.

Even though I'm a Street Roots vendor, I still believe in hard work and doing your best.  Knitting engenders that.  I am about quality, equity and freedom of expression.  Knitting allows for that.  Cheers to a job well done."

Photographer's statement

"All these people pass me by and avoid my eyes.  I want to tap them on the shoulder and say, 'Look at me, I am not invisible'."

This was my introduction to Melissa Walsh, Street Roots vendor.  To tell her story I began by listening.  I listen to her cry, I listen to her argue with her caseworkers, and I listen to her talk excitedly about her next knitting project.

I then I begin to follow her: to the food bank, to urgent care, to the mental health unit to visit her husband.  Her days are not easy, and sometimes just following is a burden that I find difficult to bear.

Now three months later I look at Melissa and the images I have created and think, "There but by the grace of God go I."  For in this modern day Great Depression she really could be any of us.

By photographing her everyday moments, these little slices of life, my goal was to tell her story as best I could and to help give a voice to those that are sometimes not heard.  Enjoy.

Leah Nash is a Portland-based with a passion for documenting the everyday and the extreme, which she often finds are one and the same.  She holds a Master's degree in photojournalism from the University of Missouri and in 2004 was awarded a Fulbright Grant to photograph the AIDS crisis in India.

She has received the Marty Forscher Fellowship for Humanistic Photography, the NPPA Kit C. King Scholarship, and has been honored by PDN, the Magenta Foundation, the Eddie Adam's Workshop and by CPOYi.

Her clients include Newsweek, Mother Jones, GEO Magazine, The Fader, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Stern, The Washington Post and local publications including Street Roots, The Oregonian, Oregon Business Magazine, and Portland Monthly.

More of her work can be viewed at:  www.LeahNash.com.

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