RANCHO SANTA FE — In 1991, Susan Madden Lankford was living the good life, dividing her time between her husband and three daughters and working as a portrait photographer.
Her world was rocked one night when a teenager was killed in a car accident across the road from her Rancho Santa Fe home. Two weeks later, her youngest daughter, Polly, was trampled by a horse.
“There are critical moments when you say, ‘Oh, my god, at least my daughter is alive,” Lankford said. “But what do we know about our community and society?”
Lankford decided to investigate, moving her business to an old jail at Seaport Village she rented for $220 a month.
“I knew I was going to do something different while the kids were in school,” she said. “I thought I’d start a commercial photography business.”
Instead of clients, a stream of homeless people trickled by her new studio to watch.
“One man named Hugh asked what I was doing ‘in a place like this,’” she said. “He wanted to tell me his story of incarceration.”
Two months later, Lankford relocated her operation from the jail to a loft.
She set a new goal: to document, in photos and in words, the reasons why people choose to live on the streets.
“I started asking people if they wanted to be part of a book,” she said. “For a little bit of writing I gave them a little bit of cash. I learned a lot of things I never would have learned on my property in Rancho Santa Fe.”
The individual stories, collected between 1991 and 1996, are chronicled in “downTown U.S.A., A Personal Journey with the Homeless” that was released this month.
The personalities include Mrs. Walton who became homeless when her house burned down.
Jed, in his 20s, lived in a cardboard wardrobe and guided Lankford through San Diego’s underbelly.
Michael, an addict, became a family friend.
The book follows Lankford’s first effort,“Maggots In My Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time” published last year. It is a study of life in Las Colinas women’s jail between 1995 and 1997.
Lankford’s daughter, Polly, inspired the final book in the trilogy titled, “Born, Not Raised: Kids at Risk” which deals with life in San Diego Juvenile Hall between 1996 and 1998. It’s scheduled for publication next fall.
Langford’s passion for children in the juvenile justice system led to the establishment of Humane Smarts, a nonprofit foundation tasked with creating an academy for youth as an alternative to detention.
“Through books and mild activism something can be done,” she said. “It can’t be done in isolation.”
Lankford also launched her own company, Humane Exposures Publishing, which produces books to increase awareness and generate dialogue leading to social reform.
In a few weeks, the organization will host its first “Call to Action” event dealing with the homeless crisis in San Diego. For information, call (619) 702-4655, e-mail [email protected] or visit http://humaneexposures.com/.
Lankford’s books, published by Humane Exposures, are available at Borders and amazon.com.