homelessness

Meet Marsha

With so many homeless folks in our community and such exorbitant rents and low availability of housing, it’s hard to imagine any of our homeless neighbors overcoming the odds against finding long term housing. But it does happen, especially with patience, luck, and the support of programs like The Living Room (TLR) that helps people connect with and take full advantage of the resources. 

So I was delighted that soon after moving with her kitty into her own apartment in downtown Santa Rosa, Marsha was willing to tell me her story so that I could share it. 

I was struck by Marsha’s sweet countenance even when sharing experiences of homelessness and physical illness. She had made friends with the guards and ticket sellers at the transit station who understood that the benches were a safe place to sleep at night. With a chuckle she remembered, “And in the morning me and the others (homeless) would go to the nearby donut shop for coffee.”  She discovered that the solution to not getting your stuff ripped off while you slept was to tie your backpack to the bench. And although she ended up getting pneumonia, a place in TLR’s transitional housing opened up in time and she got treatment. 

You can see more portrait stories like Marsha’s, as different as the women are, in my art show titled This is My Story: Women and Homelessness, currently on virtual exhibition at the Santa Rosa Arts website. I hope you’ll take a look if you haven’t already.

Meet Nickalena

In November 2018 when I approached The Living Room with my proposal to sketch stories of the activities and people there, the staff was enthusiastic and welcoming. But when I showed up with my sketch materials, it was like the first day at a new school, where you don’t know if anyone will want to talk to you, and you may have to eat lunch alone! (an experience I remember from a childhood of moving around the country, sometimes in the middle of the school year)

In general people who have been homeless are accustomed to being “invisible” in public, so they don’t necessarily make eye contact. And I am surprisingly shy about approaching people uninvited. I wondered why any of them would want to talk to me, or let me sketch them anyway. But I knew it was up to me to break the ice. I had a card made that introduced myself as an artist who was there to draw stories. I would stand in line, get a hot lunch tray, and sit next to someone to eat. Little by little I became known, and mostly it just got easier to approach people as I realized that what I had to offer was not just a sketch of them, but my genuine interest in anything they wanted to tell me about their lives.

That led to co-leading an art and meditation group there, and eventually to this portrait story project. Nickalena fascinated me in so many ways, like her story of devoting herself to homeless kids, becoming an artist and writing a book while on the streets. When I asked if I could read her poetry, she recited some to me, and it was delightful!

 

Nickalena

If you haven’t seen my exhibit of the portrait stories : This is My Story: Women and Homelessness, you can view it now on the Santa Rosa Arts website.

And visit The Living Room to find out more about what they’re doing now and how you could help.

This Is My Story: Women and Homelessness

I was recently invited to show my portrait sketches of women from The Living Room on a Santa Rosa public art site called Inside OUT There. I’m happy to announce that you can now see the on line exhibition of these portrait stories. This project provides an intimate look at the lives of women who are or who have been homeless. During my year and a half of volunteering at The Living Room, I made friends with the women and children, led art and meditation groups, and sketched stories of the activities.

As women got to know me, they talked about their lives, let me sketch their portraits, and helped me to tell their stories. When the pandemic hit and the doors were shut on indoor services, I sketched the transition and switched to portraits of women wearing masks as they came for the food and other services at the outdoor location.

Please take a few minutes to visit the exhibition on line. You can look at the portraits full screen, read the stories, and navigate through them like a slideshow.

Eve

I would love to know your reactions to these picture-stories. Please share your thoughts in comments here, where they would be greatly appreciated.

Meet Victoria

Victoria is one of the first ladies I met a year and a half ago at The Living Room. She was in the knitting group and later I would see her in the art groups. One day she told me about her connection with Homeless Action, a group of grassroots activists in Sonoma County working towards ending the suffering of people who do not have a home. She was particularly involved in the legal struggles to protect homeless people on the streets from being arrested when they had nowhere else to go.

Her story is one of the most remarkable I learned when doing this portrait project.

Victoria

Victoria would come to the art group that Ruth and I led on Fridays. Sometimes she would burst into song and others would join in. After doing some art play sometimes we would do a free write, like I do in Muse Groups. Hers always revealed a quirky sense of humor that would keep us laughing.

One day she brought some aged wooden shingles she’s picked up in a construction trash pile, and we gave her the paints she wanted so that she could paint the madonna on one. When the others saw what she’d done, they wanted to try it too. The madonna is still in my car and she asks about it. I’m happy to hold onto it and the blessings that flow from it until she has a more permanent living situation.

Victoriapandemictimes

I have lost touch with my friends who, before the pandemic I would see on my weekly visits. So you can imagine that I was relieved to see her on one of my trips to the The Living Room after the pandemic started.

I sat with her on the roadside while she ate her lunch. She’s still in the shared living situation and involved with yet another group serving homeless people: SAVE Sonoma Applied Village Services and, due to being in the high risk (virus)category, does what she can by phone. But her current housing is time limited and she fears what will happen next, when there is so little permanent housing available, a problem she knows well.

The Living Room: Pandemic Times

When the doors of The Living Room were ordered closed over two months ago to protect an already endangered population of homeless and at risk women and children from the viral spread, the staff got busy reinventing the program to meet the needs of the pandemic. Outside the gates. In other words, in the parking lot.

Last week I found my spot again under the redwood trees on the outskirts of the parking lot. I was sketching and hoping to see some of my friends, participants of the program I have come to know for the past year and a half of volunteering in the programs.

Redwood Gospel Mission had parked their mobile shower truck in the parking lot and people were lining up for the free hot meals – a breakfast and a lunch of healthy and appetizing food which they could carry off to eat somewhere off the property. Some headed for the side street and curbs, others for the bus stop or their cars.

Men were welcomed along with women and children. A man emerged from his shower and, after picking up his hot meal of pulled pork and veggies, did a little jig of happiness, exclaiming to no one in particular, “This feels so good! I want to live here!”

TLRpandemictimes

After getting their food, which was handed out the window of the kitchen, people were invited to go around to another window to pick up mail or get referrals and toiletries if needed.

My friend Ruth was getting her food bag and stopped a minute to talk with me. I asked how she was coping since the Covid crisis. She still sleeps in a tent with her partner, but no longer has the support of the programs and her friends at The Living Room, can’t do her laundry and rest comfortably there, and so much more. Also since the libraries are closed, it’s more difficult to stay connected with what’s going on, not to mention find public bathrooms to use. The encampments tend to be so dirty with trash that she doesn’t stay there, where otherwise there might be some sense of community.

Sheltering in place has a whole different meaning when your “place” is a tent or a car. I’ll be sharing more stories as I learn them and sketch stories of these folks who come to The Living Room. They’re our neighbors and we wish them well and want to be of help in any way we can.

The Living Room offers a variety of ways you can be of service. You can find out more on the their website and Facebook page.

 

Life on the Move. . .Homelessness

Imagine if your whole life rolled along with you on two small wheels, exposed to the world. You bring it with you because you have no home, and you cannot afford to have your few remaining belongings stolen.

Having spent a year now volunteering at The Living Room, listening to the stories of women who come there for warm meals, rest, companionship, and services, I can now imagine it better than before.

TLRLifeontheMove

One of many suitcases, backpacks and bundled belongings to be found any day at The Living Room.

I recently read that HUD had released a new report on the State of Homelessness in America. The five US cities with the highest rates of combined sheltered and unsheltered homeless have numbers more than six times the national rate and Santa Rosa is number 5, running behind only Washington, D.C., Boston, New York, and San Francisco. Add that to our notoriety for firestorms!

So who are all these homeless people? One of my friends at The Living Room (TLR) writes:

When most people think of the “the homeless” they call to mind unkempt and dirty-clothed panhandlers they encounter in their travels. In fact, in Santa Rosa most of the people sitting in the libraries reading; many of the folks typing at laptops in cafes, and lots of browsers in shops and bookstores are homeless too. We are everywhere. We’re dirty, we’re clean, we’re young, old, strung out, sober, well dressed and rumpled, crazy and sane, just like people in houses, only we can’t conceal ourselves from view.  – Maureen

Her words gave me pause. Those of us who have a home do not have other people traipsing through our personal lives throughout the day. We have homes that are off limits to strangers, not to mention doors to close, closets and drawers that remain untouched by any but ourselves. And we can sleep knowing we won’t be disturbed by someone we do not know or trust. 

Every day I’m at TLR I meet another fascinating woman like Maureen who has something to teach me about coping with life when you’re homeless. As the women are willing to share their personal stories more publicly, I will be sharing some of them here, along with more sketches and portraits of them..