Daughter Documents Homeless Dad’s Life

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Diana Kim, a Hawaii-based photographer and law student, hadn’t seen her father in years. He had left Kim and her mom when Kim was 5, and they rarely ever saw him again — that is, until Kim saw him living on the streets two years ago.

A mother of two, Kim, 30, didn’t have the most stable childhood. She often lived with other relatives, and sometimes even in cars, parks, and friends’ homes. Throughout that rocky time, she was always interested in photography. “My father used to own a photography studio in Honolulu, and as a kid, he would let me play with the discarded disposable cameras. During high school, I took a photography class and spent a lot of time in the darkroom,” she tells Yahoo Parenting.

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Diana Kim and her father in one of the only photos she has of him from her childhood. (Photo: Courtesy of Diana Kim)

Then, during her first year of college, Kim started photographing the homeless communities around her. “I gravitated towards the homeless because in some ways, I identified with their struggle,” she says. “I knew what it meant to be discarded and neglected, and to not have the stability and economic freedom I wanted.”

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But it wasn’t until 2013 that she finally found her father (who she prefers not to name for privacy reasons), among the homeless men and women she had been photographing. Kim’s grandmother had reached out to say that her father was sick and she didn’t know where he was living. “Initially, I didn’t understand what she meant and assumed that he was physically ill,” Kim says, adding that with the help of a homeless services organization, she pieced together her father’s whereabouts. “When I saw him, I realized it was much more than a physical condition — he was suffering from a severe mental illness.”

Kim finally found her father standing at the corner of a busy intersection in Honolulu. After approaching him cautiously, she tapped him on the shoulder. He didn’t look up. “Everything felt heavy. I felt the weight of our circumstances in my heart and struggled to process what was happening. It was painful and raised so many of my childhood feelings, insecurities, and frustrations of him not being there,” she tells Yahoo Parenting.

Kim explained further on her blog, “The vast emptiness between us was broken by a woman who approached me and said, ‘Don’t bother; he has been standing there for days.’ A part of me wanted to scream at this woman, and the world, for being so callous. I wanted to yell that he was my father, that she was a heartless person to not care. But I realized that none of that would change the circumstances. So instead of screaming at her, I faced her and said, ‘I have to try.’”

She continued, “He was not bathing because he suffers from a severe mental illness, and continues to hear voices in his head telling him to not bathe. I have no idea why or when he started to hear these voices because I frankly didn’t grow up with him around. But, what I do know is that somewhere along the way his illness became bigger than himself. Somewhere along the way, he became less functional in this world and lost touch of his day-to-day purpose in life.”

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Diana Kim’s father standing at an intersection in Honolulu. He was homeless, and his mental health had deteriorated significantly. (Photo: Diana Kim)

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Over the next few years, Kim and other family members, friends, and outreach workers continued to track down her father at whatever doorstep or sidewalk in Honolulu he was living on at the time. They encouraged him to get medical help, bathe, eat, and change his clothes. Every time, he refused or didn’t respond.

“I don’t think it was really a conscious decision [to start photographing her father],” Kim says. “In many ways, my camera phone became a shield. I felt like I could emotionally handle what was happening and what I was seeing in front of me through a camera. There were days when I don’t think I even saw him outside of the lens. It was too raw and real. But at the same time, I knew that I had to remember this moment. I spent more time with him in the two years he was on the streets than I had ever spent collectively in my entire life.”

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From these photographs and countless others she had taken in homeless communities, The Homeless Paradise was founded. “It began as the name of my personal blog. I needed an outlet to pour my pain, frustration, sadness, and hopes with regards to my father’s condition. And simultaneously, I was experiencing profound moments through my interactions with others living on the streets. It sort of became my online diary,” Kim says. “And then at some point I felt the need to do more — to create something and focus my energy on helping others by addressing the issue of safekeeping personal records and medical information.”

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Diana Kim’s father in October 2014, after having a heart attack. (Photo: Diana Kim)

Kim’s desire to do more largely stemmed from her father’s health scare. In October 2014, he had a heart attack. Luckily, someone called an ambulance and he was taken to a hospital. “My father was a ‘John Doe’ in the hospital until my cousin received a hospital bill, and we figured out that he had a heart attack. It killed me that he was in the hospital for weeks and nobody knew,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “It was an emotionally intense experience seeing him there. He was cleaner than I had ever seen him. His cheeks were fuller. I didn’t know if he would ever sleep in a bed again, and there he was, resting under clean covers.” 

The new purpose of The Homeless Paradise, and its accompanying Kickstarter fundraiser, was to produce a book of photographs to humanize homelessness, and to purchase and distribute medical ID bracelets to the homeless.

Fortunately, that heart attack would actually end up saving Kim’s father’s life — it allowed him to get the help he needed for his mental illness. “There was a period where he wanted to keep to himself, but the first time I saw him [after he left the hospital], I was shocked to see how his whole demeanor had taken a complete 180,” Kim says. “He was alive again. His eyes had life, he looked straight at me, smiled, gave me a warm hug. It was like seeing someone come back to life — a miracle.”

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Kim says her children were very receptive to her father’s situation. “I like to think my children are emotionally mature for their age. When my sons were ages 4 and 6, they visited a local homeless shelter with me every other Saturday. I had started an art workshop and wanted the boys to see and experience other ways of living. I guess you could say that I wanted them to feel comfortable around those who may not live the way they are accustomed to [living],” Kim says. “Because of these experiences, they were much more receptive to what was happening with my dad. I didn’t tell them [about finding him] until he was in the hospital. I wanted to protect my family from seeing and having to deal with my pain. I spent a lot of nights crying while they were asleep. Once I did open up and shared that my father was homeless, they were very thoughtful and sensitive to my feelings.”

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Diana Kim and her father in 2015. (Photo: Courtesy of Diana Kim)

Since Kim’s father recovered, he is no longer homeless, and she says she has been taking their relationship day by day. “I don’t place any unrealistic expectations on our relationship, and focus on appreciating what we have today,” she says. “I recognize that we are still getting to know each other — and there’s still a lot that I’m sure he is processing for himself. I have to admit that it is really nice to be able to meet up for coffee and continue seeing him do well with his life.”

Kim says that after law school, she hopes to continue helping people, potentially by providing legal access to those who cannot afford it. “I have already met a number of inspiring public interest and private practicing attorneys who are ‘fighting the good fight’ and helping [homeless people] gain access to the justice system,” she says.

She adds, “We are all human — it doesn’t matter what we own or don’t own.”

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