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Woman Photographs Homeless Father For Years To Rebuild Their Relationship

Tuesday August 25, 2015    9:21 AM

"My father isn't an issue. He is a person. He is a human being."

When Oahu, Hawaii-based photographer Diana Kim saw her father for the first time in years, he was standing on a street corner, staring at the asphalt below.

He didn't acknowledge her presence.

Kim's father was struggling with mental illness, had been homeless for some time and didn't recognize her. Try as she might, she could not get his attention.

"I could tell it was him by his posture and of course, his face," she told The Huffington Post. "He had a distinct way of standing and walking" -- a gait that family members had told her was similar to her own.

A woman approached Kim and told her that her attempts to get his attention were futile, that he'd been standing there for days.

"I wanted to scream at her for not caring, for being so cruel, and not considering that he was my father," Kim told NBC Asian America. "I turned towards her and said, 'I have to try.'"

Instead of giving up, Kim started documenting her father's life with her photography, making every attempt to chip away at his resistance to her help.

Kim, 30, has been photographing Hawaii's homeless people since 2003 -- since before her father was homeless and before she even knew he struggled with mental illness.

She writes on her blog, The Homeless Paradise, that she wants to document the lives and struggles of one of the largest homeless populations per capita in the country because, "When I see the 'homeless,' I see my past in them. I feel their pain and their frustration, their simple joys and hope. I feel their heart. And they feel mine."

Kim's parents separated when she was young and her father was absent for most of her life. Her living environment was unstable, and at times, she lived with relatives, crashed at friends' houses and even found temporary shelter in cars and parks. She hadn't spoken to her father in years when her late grandmother reached out to tell her that he struggled with severe mental illness and had become homeless.

"I think my grandmother reached out to me because she wasn't able to get through to him," Kim told HuffPost in an email. "I can only imagine the kind of pain and desperation she felt in trying to help her son ... I'm sure she was hoping that I could get through to him."

In 2012, she gathered "tidbits of my father's health status and living arrangements" and went looking for him on the streets of Honolulu.

After finding him, she blogged in 2014, it became even more clear to her that homelessness is "not just an issue — my father isn't an issue. He is a person. He is a human being."

Kim told Hawaii Public Radio last year that even though her father was absent while she was growing up, she still felt drawn to help him.

"I was coming from the outside view because I just didn't know who this person was," she said. "I'm in a position where I've spent a lot of time with the homeless, long before my dad landed on the streets. This is my opportunity to try to be his advocate and to try to go ahead and help this man who is my dad."

For two years, Kim struggled without success to get her father to accept help. The first six months, she has said, "were incredibly difficult."

"He has a severe mental illness," she told Hawaii Public Radio, "and so to expect that he's gonna be capable to voluntarily, to willingly and to consent the whole way through -- that's not reasonable."

On her blog, Kim says she often went searching for him at odd hours of the night only to experience "the stab of sorrow and despair as I watched him walk away from me, and the weight of my tears as I drove away not knowing when I would see him again."

It was only when he had a heart attack and Kim was called to the hospital that her father finally began treatment for his mental illness.

"A year and a half, two years ago, my dad wasn't even there. His spirit was not there," Kim told NBC. "Today, you look at him and he has life in his eyes."

Now, Kim is helping her father take small, but monumental steps toward regaining his life. When he recently mentioned his desire to become a taxi driver again, she helped him get an appointment for a road test and a new driver's license.

When he passed, "He was beaming, a full ear-to-ear grin," she wrote in her blog.

But Kim knows "the road to recovery is ongoing," and says she and her father, who is now living in an assisted living facility, are taking things day by day as they relearn how to have a relationship with one another.

"I do my best to not place any unrealistic expectations on my father or our relationship," she told HuffPost.

"Even though he's doing better, I still see that there are days when he does struggle with maintaining his treatment plan," she told Hawaii Public Radio last week. "And because now he's becoming more independent, he has that ability to choose"

"I keep my fingers crossed," she has written, "that my dad will stay in a 'good place.'"

In between helping to care for her father, pursuing a law degree at the University of Hawaii, and being a wife and a mother to two young boys, Kim still finds time to reach out to the homeless community and brings books to children in the Kakaako homeless encampment, one of the city's largest.

She is working on a photo book, which she successfully Kickstarted in January, to chronicle her journey with her father, as well as the lives of other homeless people in Hawaii. She plans to use her Kickstarter funding to distribute USB bracelets to Honolulu's homeless, so they can have wearable, digital copies of their important documents.

Regarding the big policy issues surrounding homelessness, Kim wrote that, "I oddly accept that the homeless condition will never completely go away. ... But no matter what the circumstances are, the most important thing to remember is that they are people. And people deserve to be treated with respect even if they've hurt you."

"I focus on the person behind the circumstance," she told HuffPost. "So long as we are alive, we have that 'second chance'"

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