In 2006, while in San Francisco and running a gallery, one of my favorite causes was the Hospitality House – a resource and community arts program for the city’s homeless. After working on several fundraising events with them, I decided to see if I could drum up a project to do with the homeless folks.
At first I thought doing portraits in oil of them would be terrific – I could teach them how to paint while painting their portrait, and oil portraits are usually reserved for the wealthy. I began by taking photos of some of them – and yes, some of the people were beautiful. I had to pause though as I truly thought through the ramifications of this project. While the intention was nice, they don’t have a home for these portraits. That nearly broke my heart, and made me put a permanent pause on the project, believing that it would not help them in the slightest.
In the past several months I’ve been hearing about art projects in the predominantly homeless territory: Andres Serrano’s homeless sign extravaganza, other artists collecting homeless signs for years, or artists making homes for the homeless. With the trend of “social engagement” art, it seems this American issue needs some serious tackling and mind-bending solutions, some of which could come from artists.
In order of perceived efficacy, I’ve listed the most compelling to the least compelling. The last, in all fairness, was not a work of art intended to address the homeless issue but an example of a public sculpture planted in the middle of a historically homeless area in NYC:
1. Signs for the Homeless, An Exchange Project by artist Kenji Nakayama & Christopher Hope: The artists have been interviewing the homeless and making them beautiful signs to replace their cardboard ones. The interviews are posted on their blog, where you can read about each individual and their story. Very educational, intimate and thoughtful;
2. California sculpture artist making “homes” for the homeless: Artist Gregory Kloehn dumpster dives for material to build strong, sturdy, homeless “homes” on wheels in Oakland, California.
3. Artists Helping the Homeless: A collaborative of artists using a van throughout the Kansas City metro area to provide warmth, food, clothing, transportation and youth outreach. On the web site they boast an amazing 28,200 van trips, working with 3,100 individuals, and saving $66,500,000 in ambulance, hospital, police and judicial fees.
4. Artist buying homeless signs over 20 years: Artist Willie Baronet has been buying homeless signs since 1993. He’s exhibited them and is planning a road trip from Seattle to NYC to collect signs starting in July. His intent is not to sell the signs, but to raise awareness.
5. Andres Serrano and the homeless sign video: Like Baronet, Andres Serrano has bought signs from the homeless, only in the recent past, and from the NYC metro area only. He has photographed the signs and compiled them in a catchy video, complete with a voice over of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and infectious techno music. The effect is hypnotic versus jarring, and unfortunately the plight and issue of homelessness is buried in a slick soak of video effects. This comes as no surprise, as Serrano is the artist known mostly for his late 80’s “Piss Christ” – the vacant, meaningless photo of a crucifix in urine. In “Piss Christ” Serrano was neither making a statement about his own religion, about Jesus, about crosses or about pee – he was simply taking a hot button issue and using it in his art – think cheap lob over the net that wins your opponent a breezy point. Though I’ll admit it is nice to ruffle the status quo of religion, sometimes one can do it with more depth. In his defense he has quite a reputation, so thank you for using that as a spotlight for this issue – for that I am grateful.**
6. Rachel Feinstein’s “Folly” public art installation in Madison Square Park Conservatory: As noted above this was not a work of art meaning to reflect on homelessness or any such thing. The artist chose to make “follies” in this public NYC park. Follies were once a frivolous decoration in Europe to capture the imagination of the bored and wealthy. While researching however I uncovered another instance of the folly in Ireland. These Irish follies were created purely so that the unemployed would have work to do. So yes, in parts of Ireland you may find facades and streets, evidence that projects were created simply to keep people paid and busy. I feel Ms. Feinstein’s work was from the former intention, given she was just featured in this month’s Architectural Digest standing inside a maquete of the work. The work installed in the Madison Square Conservatory is up on a stick so no one can really explore it – heaven forbid a homeless person perch on the ship and go on an adventure. I wish she would have went with a design close to the ground, one where people could interact with – homeless or not. She’s right on the mark by providing a respite from our dearth of imagination these days. While a pleasant reminder to dream it would have been nice if it was a little dirtier, a little less precious, and somehow for all of us to experience.
Some brutal statistics on homelessness:
NYC is launching a $6 million campaign this July to assist with the homeless problem in subways and public places.
$1.2 million k-12 students were homeless in America between 2011-2012.
Between 2.3 and 3.5 million people experience homelessness in America.
107,000 veterans are homeless on any given night.
Families comprise nearly 40% of all who are homeless.
68% of the cities turn away homeless families with children because of a lack of available shelter beds.
Among families who are homeless with children, the majority cited loss of a job as the cause, followed by the lack of affordable housing, poverty, low-paying jobs and domestic violence.
42% of homeless children are under the age of 6.
A child is born into poverty every 33 seconds.
Families with children comprise one of the fastest-growing segments of the homeless population today.
More than 15% of Americans live in poverty, including one in five children (22%), the highest rate in the industrialized world.
Almost 60% of Americans will spend at least one year below the poverty line at some point between ages 25 and 75.
There is no city or county anywhere in the United States where a worker making the minimum wage can afford a fair market rate one-bedroom apartment.
The cost of rent and utilities for a typical two-bedroom apartment increased 41% from 2000 to 2009.
Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington State, and Washington, D.C. have the highest rates of homelessness.
Department of Veterans Affairs
National Alliance to End Homelessness
National Center for Homeless Education
National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty
The Urban Institute
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
** More Art project happening now in tandem with Andres Serano’s homeless sign video – a clever and telling twist on portraiture and public art.