After graduating from San Francisco State University in 1991 with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism, Darcy Padilla began freelancing for the New York Times (1991 to present) and the San Jose Mercury News (1993) in between traveling to Latin America to work on documentaries. Since then she has worked on a nine-year project chronicling the lives of the urban poor. Padilla’s work has appeared in many publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Life, Fortune, Harper’s Bazaar, and Graphis. The United Nations selected her project on Urban Poverty for the UNAIDS exhibition in Geneva in 1997. She participated in an exhibition of Latin American photographers entitled Centro De La Imagen, which exhibited 96 photographers of Latin descent and traveled to five different countries over two years in 1996 and, in 1990, received the Alexia Foundation Award for world peace and understanding. Padilla was also awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 1995 and an Open Society Individual Project Fellowship in 1998.
Poverty, AIDS, drug abuse, emotional, and physical abuse, and strained and sundered relationships with friends and family—the problems that plague people who belong to our society’s underclass are tangled and tied together like a Gordian knot. America may be the most open society in the world, but for many, its promise cannot overcome the grim reality of living with these problems in places like San Francisco’s Tenderloin.
Julie Baird is one of these people. Julie has been on her own since her sexually abusive stepfather threw her through a glass window when she was 14 years old. She ran away from home, lived on the street, used drugs, picked up HIV, and had four children (Rachel, Tommy, Jordan, and Ryan).
When I first met Julie in February 1993 in the lobby of a single room occupancy hotel, she was 18 years old and had just given birth to her first child, Rachel. Julie and Jack Fyffe, the 19 year-old father, were both HIV positive. Rachel, they said, was their main reason for living. Over the last eight years, I have photographed Julie’s struggle to stay off drugs and her innumerable moves from one dilapidated residential hotel to another.
Julie’s story is a complex one of multiple homes, AIDS, abusive relationships, drug abuse, and poverty. A victim of child abuse, Julie often neglected her own children. A high school dropout, she depends on welfare to feed her family. HIV positive, she fights to stay off drugs. Fyffe, Rahcel’s father, was an addict who died of AIDS in March 1998. Jason Dunn also has AIDS, is the father of her two youngest children, and served time in jail, as has Julie. All of Julie’s children are now in foster care.
Julie’s problems are too tightly woven to be resolved by a single remedy, whether drug rehabilitation, job training, or workfare. Her experiences remind us that there are no simple solutions to our complicated and ever-changing public health problems. If we are to understand why our drug policy, health care system, and responses to AIDS and poverty are failing, we must first understand the nature of Julie Baird’s life.
—Darcy Padilla, June 2001