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On the Margins 

Edwina M. Scott's photos of homeless Tucson women may startle you

A year before her death, Rosina looked terrible.

Just 49 years old, she had a face that was deeply lined, and hair that was long and disheveled. Her sad eyes were ringed with thick black eyeliner. Her lips were pressed together in despair.

Rosina posed for a close-up portrait in the last year of her life, sometime in 2002 or 2003. Shot by Tucson photographer Edwina M. Scott, she's a picture of desolation. Scott also recorded Rosina in two of Rosina's "homes," makeshift camps she'd set up around town. One was behind the movie theater on Grant Road near Interstate 10. The other one rose among the weeds in some unnamed industrial area.

In "Rosina at First Camp," she poses self-consciously on a cooler, hands clasped on her lap. Beyond her on the ground are bedrolls crumpled up in the dirt, and the blankets she and her boyfriend, Pierre, have hung up for walls. Trees fringe this little homestead. In "Rosina at Second Camp," she's come down a peg or two from this relative luxury. Propped up against a chain-link fence, she sits in the dirt, dwarfed and isolated by the weeds growing up all around her.

As with the other homeless women whose photographs appear in Women of Courage, Scott's solo show at the UA Campus Christian Center, Rosina's natural habitat was the margins of the city. By definition, these women live outside, along chain-link fences, by railroad tracks, inside culverts, in cars, improvising camps among scrub plants and under the mesquites. They pose for Scott's camera in front of cinder-block walls, at picnic tables in parks, outside feeding centers.

Shot in the overwhelming natural light of Tucson, Scott's black-and-white photos bring the harshness of this outdoor life into focus. The faces of the 13 women highlighted in the show are prematurely weathered by the harsh desert climate. In nearly every close-up, the woman squints out at the sun through deeply creased eyes.

Scott, now 76 years old, met these women five years ago at a drop-in shelter called Casa Paloma, run in Barrio Anita by the Primavera Foundation. A retired schoolteacher from Maryland, Scott worked as a volunteer cook. She learned that the women she met, most of them middle-aged, had tumbled down various chutes into homelessness. Drugs and abusive men were often the trigger, but not always.

Gaby, born in 1958, had developed a $7,000-a-day gambling habit in the casinos around Tucson. Fifty-something Teresa lost her job and apartment when she developed cancer. Crack tossed Glenda, about 50, into the streets.

One of the younger women, Amber, just 23 when she was photographed, had lost her home as a young teenager after her parents divorced. She didn't always take the meds she needed for her bipolar disorder, and her mental illness kept her living in Tucson's washes. Standing in front of a cinder-block wall, Amber gives a radiant, toothy smile in her portrait. But she's fragile, reed-thin and "she has trouble conversing," Scott reports.

A serious photographer in her retirement, Scott has done a creditable job of capturing these women's lives in her empathetic photos, though occasionally, they're too dark, stymied by the fierce sun and shadow of Tucson's outdoors. (And the show, alas, is poorly lit and hung.)

Scott says she found the women's faces "awesome," and eventually worked up the courage to ask for permission to photograph them. Eleanor, a 62-year-old, was the first to give the OK, and some of Scott's best images are of her. The Eleanor pictures also set the pattern for the series: Scott usually made a portrait, and then some in situ shots of the woman in her environment.

In her close-up, Eleanor beams, her strawlike gray hair poking out of a knit cap. In another, she lingers outside a playground, part of the unseen backdrop of the city. "Eleanor Waiting for Food Outside a Shelter," a study in sun and shadow, has a classic diagonal composition, with the black metal fence receding to a vanishing point up the street. Weighed down by the baggage she totes everywhere, Eleanor stands patiently on the sidewalk for her next meal.

Working in the rough parts of town in her early 70s, Scott says she wasn't exactly fearful, but she took some precautions.

"I avoided places if I thought it was dangerous. I did not go out at night. I didn't go if I knew the woman did drugs. One time, though, along the railroad trucks, I was escorted by a convicted felon, the husband of one of the women."

Scott also interviewed each woman, and the text she's posted is full of invaluable information on how each woman first took to the streets and how she gets by. The women report routine mistreatment. Teresa, the cancer patient, says a cop confiscated her tent. After that, she had to sleep out in the open. Eleanor says she got kicked out of a dry bed under a porch on a rainy night by a purple-shirted worker for the Tucson Downtown Alliance. But occasionally, people are kind. A nun kept Teresa alive by bringing her food each day.

"No one knows about these women," Scott says. "No one knows what they go through. Without a job, they can't find a place to live, and without a place to live, they can't find a job. It's a vicious cycle."

More than a few resort to prostitution to keep themselves alive, and some have rotated in and out of jail. Darlene and Ronda both work the streets; at the time of the photo shoots, Ronda would bring johns into a van she owned. A series depicting Darlene, Ronda and another friend, Joyce, traces how rough the life can be.

In her portrait, Darlene, a mother of five in her late 30s, looks lovely, her light-brown hair framing her fine-boned face. (Scott seemed to make an effort to make the women look attractive in their close-ups.) Likewise, Joyce, a black woman in her 50s, is prettily posed against the branches of a pine tree. But in a group shot, "Friends: Joyce, Ronda, Darlene," we get a more shocking view.

The three women stand grinning, arm in arm outside Ronda's van. Both Darlene and Joyce look startlingly different. Joyce is just plain dirty--water is at a premium among the homeless, and hygiene hit or miss. Darlene is painfully thin. And both are missing most of their front teeth. Despite their smiles, they look unhealthy, and vulnerable.

And in fact, homeless women are routinely in peril. One woman reports being beaten and raped. Another was abandoned in a culvert by a boyfriend. And Rosina did not survive her 50th year.

Piecing together the story after her death in 2003, Scott writes that Rosina had been hospitalized with a serious infection of her arm. But she died suddenly. Hospital workers were suspicious that her boyfriend had injected her with drugs, but apparently, no investigation was conducted.

Instead, Rosina's body was cremated almost immediately, and her ashes were shipped back to her family in Pennsylvania. She got home at last, but only in death.

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