True Stories

Humane Exposures: Susan Madden Lankford Adjusts the Focus on Homelessness

By | Sep 2, 2010

Susan Madden Lankford

A tragic accident 20 years ago brought about a surprising revelation for Susan Madden Lankford, inspiring her to get more involved with what was happening in her community. Four local teenage boys got high and were involved a terrible car accident right outside her family’s property in San Diego. All of the boys were students at her daughters’ high school. One of the boys died in the accident.

“It was a harsh reality as a young mother with three girls. This was their high school,” Lankford said. “It took me into very sharp focus internally.”

At the time, Lankford was a commercial photographer. Not long after the accident, she went to an old, empty jail with the thought that she might use it for some commercial shots. To her surprise, several homeless people followed her into the jail. Remembering her decision to get more involved with the issues in her community, Lankford struck up a conversation with her unexpected visitors.

“They wanted to know if I was working in the jail,” she said. “I let them take me to the streets, and I ended up spending three and a half years photographing and interviewing homeless people.”

One of the first homeless people that Lankford got to know was a man named Jed. The local business owners all knew and liked him, he knew every corner in town and he had connections to a lot of other people experiencing homelessness. Lankford hired him to act as a guide and a liaison to connect her with other homeless people in the area.

“He’d given me a little tour to show me what goes on in the street, what happens in the wee hours of the morning, which corners were the ‘drug corners’ and stuff like that,” she said. “After that I said, ‘I’ll meet you here at 8:00 a.m. Monday morning and you can show me the places you go, where you get food and help me find more contacts.”

At first, Lankford kept up with her commercial photography. But it didn’t take long for her to realize that her commercial work didn’t inspire her the same way that photographing and talking with people living on the streets did.

“That was when I decided I was just going to write a book about people experiencing homeless,” she said. “I rented my first work loft away from North County, and every day I met up with homeless people in the area to go out on the streets with them. I started to see downtown with an entirely different set of eyes.”

She visited shelters, where she interviewed staff members and residents alike. She learned about everything from educational programs being set up for homeless children to the difficulties facing ex-convicts trying to transition back into society. Eventually her journey took her to Balboa Park, a location that had previously been nothing more than a scenic spot to enjoy a picnic lunch and escape the bustle of downtown.

But when she viewed Balboa Park with a new set of eyes, she discovered that it was not only a haven for homeless people, it was also a center for drug deals and male prostitution.

“A lot of these guys were living a life of drugs and male prostitution, and then sleeping in the park at night,” she said. “I had to write about it. A lot of them were young kids, many very nice looking with at least a high school education…but here they were. I wanted to know why they were in the park and get the story from their angles.”

During the time she spent putting the book together, a huge percentage of the people Lankford interviewed repeatedly entered and exited jail, yet many could not be convinced to enter shelter. That fascinated Lankford, and was a major source of her desire to continue conducting interviews and complete her book.

“That’s really where my interest lies,” she said. “We need to tap into all types of homeless individuals. How do we do that? There’s a lot more to it than just providing a shelter.”

Learn more about Humane Exposures at their website,


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