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Redemption Song: A Portrait of Life at 2100 Lakeside Avenue

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Lakeside Avenue quickly but very subtly shifts itself eastward from the addresses of the Jones Day law offices at East 9th Street into a far different world. By the time you reach the East 20s, you're in another Cleveland, one that people don't talk about too often and one that houses, among other things, the state's largest homeless men's shelter, dubbed 2100 Lakeside colloquially.

That's where Lydia Bailey works as both the volunteer coordinator and ad hoc photographer. Lydia Bailey is kind of a star at 2100. Wherever she goes, a chorus of "Ms. Bailey! Hey, Lydia!" follows, and a fist bump or a hug is always looming.

Big green numbers — "2100," set against brickwork — signal the shelter, the oft-misunderstood magnet of faith on the near eastside. There are usually at least a dozen guys hanging around the entrance; some are volunteers, some are residents, some are casually and warily eyeing the place and debating if today will be the day they submit to The Shelter. Most of them have probably heard the same river of rumor — the place is dangerous, the place is just another free meal and a bed, the place will change your life.

Lydia's familiar with all of that, of course. She's been here for about seven years now. Along the way, she began carting a point-and-shoot digital camera with her and snapping quick, in-the-moment photos of all these guys who have passed through the 2100 experience. Her work, having culminated in a full-blown art exhibit complemented by her inscription of the men's personal stories in their own words, now travels the region (20 locations from here to D.C.) as Portraits of Homelessness, an ode to the simple fact that these men are not statistics.

"I think a lot of people have been struck by the humanity of people here," Lydia says, framed now by some of the very photos she's taken, which hang tastefully on nearly every wall at 2100. She has shot hundreds of photos of these men over the years, which is, unfortunately, just a fraction of those who live adrift in Cleveland.

According to the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, the numbers are staggering. In 2012, homeless shelters around here served 8,428 people (a 23-percent jump from the previous two years). Of those, 3,210 were "newly homeless," likely victims of the ongoing economic recession and, inevitably, the mid-2000s housing bubble. Still, those shelter numbers nab only about half of the real homeless population. Advocates say it's impossible to really count.

Generally and statewide, just shy of half the homeless population receives food stamp benefits. 2100 facilitates that process; the shelter can also line up more self-sustaining income for groceries and the like. And that's why 2100's tag as a "homeless shelter" is actually somewhat imprecise. There's much more going on behind the brickwork and lingering crowds out front. "Transitional housing," more of a school of thought than the immediate euphemism it might call to mind, is the phrase that gets passed around quite often here.

For the men who live at 2100, Lydia's photos expose a sense of humanity that sometimes they forget about themselves and, more often than not, that the world around them forgot a long time ago.

***

Lydia is busy today. In fact, 2100 as an entity is busy. The shelter gushes and swells with motion at every turn. I mention to Lydia how busy this place seems, and a gentleman rushing past us in the hallway quickly interjects: "Very much so!" Then he's out of sight, rounding a corner and caroming into the day's duties. People exit one door and duck into another. 2100 is nothing if not active. There are often some 400 guys living here on any given day. Most of them will stick around for 30 days or so, working toward independence and getting help from an array of service-oriented agencies around the region.

In through the front door and out of the swirling Lakeside Avenue breeze, a gray hallway leads to a short set of stairs, and there's often a line of men here. They come for different reasons, though it may be years before they articulate them. Volunteers rush back and forth through the metal detector, tending to new names and signing off on deliveries piling up just inside the door. A massive fan billows a faint scent of industrial disinfectant around the front desk. Everyone raises their arms as the security staff wands incoming bodies.

If someone's got a question, the men at the front desk will be able to answer it. But most guys are too stunned when they get here to even consider voicing a question.

For those new to the 2100 trip, there are two routes in: You can go formal and get registered at Central Intake — back in those offices by the cafeteria, where John "Two Braids" is working right now — or you can hang in the emergency services bay for a night or two. 2100 doesn't turn people away. The folks that work or volunteer here, Lydia and Two Braids among several hundred more, might prefer simple registration, but there's a sense that men are following their God-given path. Best not to force their hands.

Two Braids has expressive eyes that fix on others' with a friendly determination. His hair knits tightly into his namesake on the back of his head. He doesn't want his photo taken, but he says to tell the readers that he looks "like Snoop Dogg or that other guy Charles Ramsey." He does.

He arrived at 2100 last November.

"I've heard it said that children are afraid of the dark and men are afraid of the light," Two Braids says. Probably the biggest obstacle imposed on his initial journey to 2100, he adds, was this sense of shame about his station in life. And that's not a unique concern, really. "It's at the point where I'm 43 years old and I have to own the fact that I'm not financially or physically capable of sustaining my own residence or supporting myself or putting food on the table and that as a man I can't do that. I have to face the fact that I have to go to a shelter to sustain myself — that's one of the big hurdles."

He walked past 2100 multiple times before sighing and heading inside. Seven months later, he'll now regale you with the minutiae of how 2100 changed his life.

But what could be so revelatory about a homeless shelter?

The answer, not unpredictably, lies in Lydia's photos and stories.

***

I was homeless before "homeless" was even used. There are defining moments...when a person realizes he has nowhere to live, no sofa to crash on, little or no funds, no goodwill to fall back on, no job...absolutely nothing.

So next comes shelters and/or street life, which can be brutal. Street life can become addicting, which is something non-street people may not understand. Always on edge, always alive struggling to survive, all the senses are heightened to the max...an extreme self-awareness, especially when you are alone at night, walking the streets or hanging out. With no expectations...no expectations.

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