The Living Room

Carmen

The portrait project at The Living Room is keeping me joyfully busy these days, collecting the stories of these women who have become my friends. They have all been homeless and many of them still are. They have that is common, along with other things I couldn’t have known about without spending hours listening to them. They possess a kind of hard won wisdom and a desire to minister to others who are down on their luck.

. . .Like Carmen, who leaned in to tell me her secret, “Sleeping on the streets you learn to be grateful for what you do have, and it makes you strong.”

Carmen

Carmensita is almost always to be found by her side.  She is the white “Yoda” in the stroller below. Likely she is dog sitting the large hound by her side.

dogduo

 

Meet Maria

When I first starting going to The Living Room to sketch the stories I felt shy about just showing up and sitting down with the women. I had been given permission by the staff, but at first it was a bit like showing up at a party where no one there has actually invited you. Or even like the first day at a new school, an experience I had many times as a child, since my family moved a lot.

But it was my good luck that one of the first people I met, as I sat down in the singing group, was Maria. It was so easy to talk to her, and she volunteered information about how things worked there, so that I felt more at ease. And the next week, when I showed up at the Knitting Group, she let the group know what who I was. Over time I learned that it came naturally for her to offer help to women who had newly shown up at The Living Room, bewildered, anxious and in need of  direction. By the time I did this portrait, I had already sketched her numerous times in activities and events there.

Maria

 

Christmas at The Living Room

It’s a sunny morning, the day after Christmas, and my sons and I are headed to the beach for a hike! Both of them now live in land-locked places and appreciate the ocean air when they’re home.

So I’ll take a few moments while they’re eating breakfast (it’s been busy here lately!) to share my day of celebrating Christmas at The Living Room with participants, staff and Santa Tim and Jingles last week.

TLRmotherchildXmas

The week before I’d wrapped presents with the moms in the MAC (Mothers and Children) program. On this cold and rainy morning there were no children outside in the play area, so I headed into the MAC house which was packed with moms and their youngest children and a grandma or two. This little one was enjoying her new doll. . .

TLRMACXmas

. . .while other children were being entertained and entertaining the moms. I came too late for the young man who comes with his guitar to sing Christmas songs with the families. I caught what I could with my pen, took some pictures and added paint later.

The holiday feast was next, with roast beef, twice baked potatoes and all the other trimmings, and with an infinite supply of Christmas cookies, all served at white clothed, festively decorated tables by a large crew of volunteers.

lrsantasknee

(above sketch from Christmas 2018)

Then Santa and Jingles showed up to pose with Moms and kids and staff and even some lucky volunteers.

santa andme

You may have seen this very same Santa on the front page of the PD paper this week!

Happy Holidays to one and all!

Portrait Project

The conversations about homelessness are everywhere in our county. So many kind hearted people, who have secure housing, are struggling to understand: how could it be that there are 200 people living in all manner of tents in the pouring down rain and mud of a popular public trail!? We wonder, who are these homeless folks and how did they come to be on the streets?

I have been slowly finding my way into conversations with women to try to understand how this can happen in a county where there is considerable concentration of wealth. Most of the women who come to The Living Room have at some point suffered “on the streets” without shelter. Some have been living in their cars or minivans by the roadside or in parking lots. Others have been staying in emergency shelters and, after long waits, secured transitional or more long term housing. Aside from those similarities, each of their stories are as unique as their personalities.

For the past couple months I’ve been doing watercolor portraits of some of these brave women who have shared their stories with me. I’ve been struggling to condense their complex histories, experiences with homelessness, as well as their strengths and hopes for the future, into a few sentences to put on their portrait.

They want to be seen, not for their homelessness but for their humanity and individual gifts, and this is the pact I make with them. Their stories have been a gift to me, but as I begin to share the portraits I realize that this gift elevates the whole discussion of homelessness to one of our shared humanity. As we listen to each other’s stories we realize that our personal sphere of caring and responsibility has grown and our hearts have grown with it.

And so the Portrait Project at The Living Room was born. The intention of the project is to raise public awareness, raise money for The Living Room’s extensive services for women and children at risk, while also raising the self-esteem of the women.  We will be exploring local venues to exhibit the portraits, events like panel discussions with experts, and publishing a book of the portraits and essays on homelessness.

Meanwhile you’re probably wanting to read the stories too! Over time I will be sharing them here. And I hope you will participate by sharing any ideas about a possible name for the project or venues for an exhibition. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to participate in some way.

Mixed Media at The Living Room

Ruth and I showed up for the Mixed Media Art play Group we’ve been leading at The Living Room with bags of materials to set up in the dining room after lunch. The group is sort of like the Muse Group I teach in my studio, only with a lot of wild cards. We fill the tables with paints and paper and marking pens and collage packets and watch the women trickle in. Most of them are friends now, known to us through their enthusiastic participation.

V. sits down and starts singing the song she woke up with, her own cheerful song about it being an art-group day. She has brought some aged wood shingles she found and she wants to paint a madonna on them. S. brings all her belongings with her so they will be safe while she paints. She has written a poem about homelessness. Soon the two of them are engrossed in their art and singing popular songs.

mixedmediaartgroup

The tables fill up. We have 11 people and scurry around to get paper and collage packets to all.  Then it gets very quiet as they cut and paste. Later they do a free write, and then share and laugh and appreciate each other’s work.

The following week we are prepared with the template of a profiled face for them to develop a self portrait on. They are able to jump right in with paint and collage, some tackling the work metaphorically and others with some realism.

As they leave the room we are showered with their gratitude. We are excited and a bit tired, but quite certain that our gratitude for being able to spend this time with them at least matches their own.

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..

 

 

 

Pet Families

I like to sit in on the Community meetings at The Living Room where I learn about services that are available to homeless and at risk women and children. One particularly popular program is called Dogwood. It’s an animal rescue project that supports animals and the people who love them. And in the case of the women who come to The Living Room this service is as supportive as the hot meals, counseling, and groups. The pets support these women in crisis in fundamental ways we can all relate too.

gerrie_1

So I continually add to my sketches of women with their dogs and hear heart warming stories like. . .

“I couldn’t have made it on the streets without his companionship.”

“My dogs are like family, only better. They love me regardless of what happens.”

“I have learned that I have to take care of things even when I’m down so that I can continue to take care of her. “

“I need them with me so that I can feel safe in the [homeless] encampments.”

“They won’t abandon me like my ____________.”

“When I cry, they lick my face and make me feel better.”

sofia_1 “He sleeps on my chest, right over my heart.”

dogduo

The Living Room is a place where women can get help and feel connected with a community of people like themselves. And that connection flows generously to folks like myself whose only real difference is that I don’t have the anxiety and depression that comes as a matter of course with having lost the security of a home. And that caring spirit extends seamlessly to the pets, who enjoy an extended family of caretakers that make it possible for women to participate in activities at times without their pets.

See some of the other TLR pet sketches here.