Salem photographer Diane Beals has been making portraits of homeless residents around the city (Courtesy/Diane Beals)

When tents pop up downtown with homeless occupants, some people look down as they walk past and others cross to the other side of the street.

But Salem Cinema owner Loretta Miles wants Salem residents to look directly at the problem of homelessness and the people impacted by it.

That’s why the independent theater in downtown Salem is hosting “Through the Lens: Spotlight on Our Homeless,” an event that will feature a presentation by Diane Beals, a local documentary photographer who captures portraits of Salem’s homeless people, a screening of the documentary “God Knows Where I Am,” and a community discussion with local stakeholders in the conversation around homelessness.

The discussion will include Salem City Councilor Jackie Leung, Safe Sleep staffer Lynelle Wilcox, the Salem Leadership Foundation’s South Salem liaison D.J. Vincent, and local family counselor Pamela Lyons-Nelson. The conversation will be moderated by the Salem Reporter’s Saphara Harrell, who covers local government.

The event is Sunday, Feb. 16, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tickets to the event can be purchased online or at the door for $20. All profits from the event will benefit Safe Sleep, a local women’s shelter.

Miles said the idea for “Spotlight on Our Homeless” came after she saw one of the portraits her friend Beals had taken of a Salem resident experiencing homelessness.

“I literally couldn’t take my eyes off that person,” she said.

Salem photographer Diane Beals has been making portraits of homeless residents around the city (Courtesy/Diane Beals)

Miles and Beals both described how photography and film can create compassion in the viewer by putting a face to the issue at hand. That’s why they see the event as a way to kickstart a conversation around a pressing community issue.

Miles encountered the other element of the event, the documentary, while at the Sedona Film Festival. “God Knows Where I Am” tells the story of Linda Bishop, a woman struggling with mental illness who starved to death while living in an abandoned house. Her account is told through family interviews and diary entries she left behind.

When the audience was asked to participate in a post-screening discussion at Sedona, “No one could say anything. We were all in tears,” Miles said. “It’s so eye-opening and so heartbreaking.”

While the documentary is not set in Salem, Miles said it provides an enlightening view into the experience of homelessness.

“There’s no ignoring it anymore,” Miles said. “The goal, in addition to humanizing these people, is people walking away thinking there are viable solutions.”

Dispatches from the Salem City Council confirm the struggle to deal with homelessness in the city: a camping ban passed in November only moved homeless residents around, and a debate of a potential and controversial sit-lie ban occurred earlier this week.

Homelessness is not going away, Beals said. And she’s seen the population in need increase in recent years. Beals’ work taking portraits of people experiencing homelessness began when she owned a portrait studio at the Reed Opera House in the early 2000s and would socialize with people out on the sidewalk.

“It used to be we knew all their names,” Beals said, but now there are too many new faces to keep track.

The photographer hopes the Salem community will come out and engage in a solutions-oriented conversation on Sunday.

“I want Salem to show up,” she said, “I hope those seats are full.”

“Through the Lens: Spotlight on Our Homeless”

Sunday, February 16, 5:30-8:30 p.m.

Salem Cinema, 1127 Broadway St. NE, Salem, OR 97301

 “Spotlight on Our Homelessness” is the first in the four-part Salem Cinema series “Through the Lens,” which will feature deep dives into current issues every other month. Stay tuned on salemcinema.com for the next event.

Contact Casey Chaffin: [email protected]