Portrait Project

Meet Grace

Before the pandemic my friend Ruth and I used to show up at The Living Room after the hot lunch was served, and armed with our bags of art supplies, lead an expressive arts group. One of the women who would drop in was Grace. She usually had to leave early to pick up her kids at school, though at least once I remember she was able to bring her daughter with her.

I was impressed with how competent she seemed, even in the midst of what I knew was a housing crisis similar to that of the other women. She would sit down, immediately engage in the art with little need for instruction, express her gratitude for the opportunity and be on her way before we wrapped up.

Months later I ran into her outside The Living Room and she agreed to share her story for the portrait project. 

She was housed and juggling a demanding schedule of work and childcare with the added element of supervising Zoom instruction for two children at home. We finally found some time to talk so I could hear her story. As with all the portrait stories I’ve done, the final story that goes with the art piece is a seriously abbreviated portion of a person’s life.

To see more of the portraits in the series “This is My Story: Women and Homelessness” you may visit the exhibit on the Santa Rosa Arts website.

If you’d like to know more about The Living Room in the context of constantly changing needs in the homeless community, watch this video which presents a look at their open-hearted response to the pandemic!

Click here to watch!

Meet Isabel

I first met Isabel a couple years ago when I first started volunteering at The Living Room. I was allowed to sit in on the close “knit” group of women who were knitting, crocheting and doing other fiber arts projects (back in the day when it was possible to sit close around a table inside in cold weather).

The group was composed of women who had been or were homeless or otherwise at risk. The leader was a much loved woman named Mary who came with supplies and participated equally in the free flowing conversation.

In the hour plus that I was there I sketched like mad to get as much of the action as possible, while absorbing the feeling of intimacy, comradeship and healing generated by this group.

With very little time to put color on, I splashed it on where it was most evident. The colorful woman in the middle was Isabel, and I hoped I would meet her later and be able to do a portrait story. Isabel was very private, but finally agreed to tell me something about her life for the portrait project.

Isabel’s is a story of great endurance, and one which was not easy for her to tell. It involves so much loss, discrimination and unfairness, yet she has found her way.

The knitting group has not been able to meet since the Covid outbreak, and access to zoom for these women is not generally an option.

However the Living Room continues to find new ways to engage with women and children at risk. Each time I stop by, I hear of their new efforts to adjust to the challenges of pandemic times. 

To see more of my portrait stories from The Living Room visit the This is My Story: Women and Homelessness gallery on the Santa Rosa Arts website

 

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 Sofia

When I met Sofia over a year ago at The Living Room, she was always cradling her little dog Roger in her arms like a baby. The women who came for meals and other services all knew each others’ dogs. Over time Sofia became a part of the extended family of women and their dogs who looked out for each other as much as they could. (see more portraits with pets here)

Sofia was a lot younger than the other women I was meeting and I immediately felt a maternal connection with her. When I heard her story, I was impressed with her intelligence and determination to make her life better despite having so few resources and so many past disappointments.

I learned that in addition to her homelessness, Sofia would be dealing with a high risk pregnancy. Sofia is one of the women with whom I have been unable to stay in touch since the pandemic and honestly that makes my heart heavy. I would like to picture her cradling a baby in those arms and in a comfortable home with her boyfriend with the possibility of going back to school and eventually having her own business again!

Meet Tracy

I’ve been really missing going to The Living Room, hanging out in the groups and at lunch, getting to meet new women and visit with the ones who’d become friends. But since the doors to the day shelter were closed due to the pandemic guidelines in March, I’ve had a bit more chance to visit at the transitional houses run by The Living Room.

Tracy volunteered to let me do a portrait story of her. I first met her when she showed up at Bonnie’s apartment to take her to the doctor. You might remember what I wrote in my Meet Bonnie post:

This is what I love about many of my friends who have been homeless. It’s that spirit of making the best of what one has, and not letting set-backs get one down. As I was leaving, I ran into another participant at The Living Room [Tracy], who was having her own issues with pain from walking after surgery. She was there to provide the ride for Bonnie to a doctor’s appt. People who know what it’s like to need help are always the first to offer it.

I knew instantly I was going to enjoy talking to Tracy.

I got to meet with Tracy in the back yard of the house she shares with other women who have been homeless and are working on finding long term housing. She showed me the well-tended garden she had lovingly created in the back yard, with marigolds planted among the vegetables to attract beneficial insects that prey on garden pests, and an elegant structure for the climbing beans. I wondered how she managed it on a limited income and with her painful hip. 

Her final words in the story were the answer I got, “I am determined to make things work!”

I couldn’t help thinking about the various aches and pains I complain about at my age, and the way I use them as an excuse to think I can’t achieve certain things. Women like Tracy cause me to think again, and maybe get a bit busier!

Meet Bonnie

Bonnie

Bonnie fell and broke her hip recently (months after I did the above portrait story), a day before holding that yard sale she’d been looking forward to.  She spent some more time in the hospital following hip surgery, but was managing on her own with crutches and with plenty of pain. I stopped by to drop off a print of her portrait, and she insisted on showing me her apartment. So I donned my mask and took a quick peek.

I’m not sure what I expected, but every square inch of space in her one bedroom apartment had been turned into a museum of her collections:  Disney characters, salt and pepper shakers, chimes, vintage lunch boxes, tea sets, dolls, dragons and wizards, and her own sculptures incorporating her many finds – all neatly arranged to tantalize the eye wherever it might land.

This is what I love about many of my friends who have been homeless. It’s that spirit of making the best of what one has, and not letting set-backs get one down. As I was leaving I ran into another participant at The Living Room, who was having her own issues with pain from walking after surgery. She was there to provide the ride for Bonnie to a doctor’s appt. People who know what it’s like to need help are always the first to offer it.

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.

Meet Vivan

This week I invited myself over to one of The Living Room’s transitional shared living houses so that I could visit with friends I’d made while doing their portrait stories last year.  Those of us who went to the day shelter on a regular basis, participants and volunteers, have been missing the sense of community we enjoyed there while eating lunch, attending groups or sitting in the garden.

Vivan

I got to check in with Vivan and ask about her life with Covid. She spoke of her odyssey from Sloan House to Astro Motel to Sonoma State emergency housing, until finally a spot opened up for her at this shared house. Even with all the changes she’s been through, she still has the optimism and energy I remembered. She’s in line for permanent housing soon and plans to finish her books of stories and cookbooks, and eventually have her own food trucks.

Her comments about pandemic life could have been anyone’s. “I feel stuck here. I’m not out walking and am gaining weight.” And then she teared up to say that the pandemic had destroyed her chance of visiting her dad this year, which would be the first possible time since 2013.

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.

The Changing Scene at The Living Room

As the pandemic continues to cause a make over at The Living Room, I’m looking for ways to document it in sketches. In a recent visit I was allowed inside the gate to see how the program keeps changing to meet the constantly evolving needs of a community in medical, social, and economic crisis.

In March, when they were ordered to close the doors on the day shelter with its rich offering of services, they morphed quickly into a program with a new mandate to offer food and housing, including referrals for men and women. When I spoke with them recently, their outreach program had placed 60 people in 6 weeks and the numbers of people they were serving hot meals was growing exponentially.

handwash station

Not only did the services change, but the “campus” also has undergone changes. One of the first was an outdoor plumbed hand washing station.

TLRrefridge

And more recently refrigeration units were installed outside the offices. TLR now is opening a pantry program so they will be functioning like a free grocery store with the items people need to make nutritious meals at home. In this way they are responding to an anticipated increase in unemployment by the end of July and a lot more hunger in the general population.

They also have plans to convert portions of the campus to housing for women, since it doesn’t seem likely the day shelter aspect of the program is likely to return for some time.

Masks-1 copy

Meanwhile the participants I knew, like Silvia here, are seen only occasionally at TLR and always masked of course.

Masks-3

I’m learning to read the welcoming look in their eyes on my rare visits when I run into people I know.

Masks-2

If you haven’t had the opportunity yet, I invite you to look at my exhibition of portrait stories of these women, titled This is My Story: Women and Homelessness, on the Santa Rosa Public Arts website.

And to learn more about The Living Room and how you could help, visit their website.

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.