Hiding In Plain Sight
A new exhibit at Carl Cherry Center shows the pictures and tells the stories of the most vulnerable population – homeless women.
Thursday, November 15, 2012
The catalog for the Carl Cherry Center’s latest art exhibition opens with a quote from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me… When they approach me they see only my surrounding, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”
It goes on to introduce the exhibition, Becoming Visible: The Face of Homeless Women in Monterey County, which opened last Friday and is made up of photographs, a documentary, recordings and written stories – punctuated by special events through December – that all revolve around our county’s “invisible” population of homeless women.
Women comprise 40 percent of the homeless in Monterey County, according to the 2011 Monterey & San Benito Counties Homeless Census & Survey Comprehensive Report. Women veterans, says Becoming Visible co-organizer Rev. Michael Reid of St. Mary’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, are four times more likely to wind up homeless than their male counterparts. The reasons range from everything from the deflated economy to mental illness to domestic violence to built-in gaps in services.
There are a number of reasons why, after becoming homeless, these women become invisible, too. Many revealed themselves during the project.
“Before, when I walked down the street, I didn’t make eye contact with homeless people,” says Lina Vital, one of the show’s three photographers. “I didn’t want to give them money. I have to rescue them? Fix them?”
Though the 2011 Homeless Census counted, conservatively, 2,507 homeless individuals in Monterey County, it conceded many homeless stay in locations where they cannot be seen or counted. Many women and families remain hidden for safety.
“Maybe they’re better off being invisible,” says Kathy Whilden, a 30-year local social worker veteran, Buddhist priest and the exhibit’s co-organizer.
Others hide to escape stigmatization, which made photographing homeless women harder than co-organizer Reid thought it would be.
“Many of these women don’t want to be identified,” he says. “They might be seeking a job and it might prevent [hiring] or they might have a job [and] can lose it. Others were ashamed and didn’t want to become visible… It’s a manifestation of how women are treated in the world at large. The expectation is that you should be able to find a man to take care of you. If you’re failed at that, you’ve failed at life.”
One homeless woman who preferred to be known by the alias Mary didn’t want to go to her class reunion, after being shunned by former friends, because she “didn’t want to get belittled.”
“It’s so difficult and challenging to your mental status,” Reid says. But he adds it also impacts physical health, naming hypertension and dental problems as just a few of the common health issues homeless women experience. “Living like this is enough to break anybody down.”
But as their trust with the people behind the project grew, many women stepped out of the shadows to show their faces and tell their stories, choosing to illuminate the conditions of their sisters on the streets. The Cherry Center exhibit gathers them in a multimedia show that’s serious and hopeful in its mission.
It began with a humble letter printed on public library paper.
Reid had been associate rector at St. Mary’s since 2008, helping conduct the regular business of the progressive church – sacraments, births, weddings and funerals – as well as its social mission of providing food, clothes and outreach for the needy.
He got a letter from a woman named Joyce who said she had once been homeless. It described how she experienced having no family, nights when it was raining and cold that she had neither sleeping bag nor tent, and didn’t know if she’d make it to dawn.
“She wanted to do whatever she could to make sure women had a bed at night and made sure they wake up the next day,” he says. “Joyce’s story broke my heart.”
Talking to homeless service providers, he found that although homeless men were being tended to by services like I-Help through the organization Shelter Outreach Plus, growing segments of homeless women were left to fend for themselves, most acutely older women and those without dependent children – and also those suffering mental illness, domestic violence or substance abuse, any of which qualifies women for special services.
Reid talked about it with his friend Whilden, who in turn talked to Carl Cherry Center executive director Robert Reese at a Zen meditation session. Reese suggested they do an art exhibit to raise awareness. They would need a creative team that would, with some guidance and emotional commitment, find the subjects and bring back the images and recordings to build the exhibition.
Amateur nature photographer Lina Vital had never shot portraits before.
“I was a little frightened to approach these women because I didn’t want to intrude on their lives,” she says. “I didn’t want to scare them.”
After she worked up the nerve to approach a woman “signing” (parlance for soliciting money with a cardboard sign) at the Home Depot in Seaside, the secretive world of the homeless opened up to her. And opened her heart, too.
Ken Wanderman, a photographer for 35 years, had shot “street people” in New York in 1984. He considered the Carl Cherry’s invitation to shoot for Becoming Visible a return to that mode, but admits in his artist statement: “This is a wealthy community and I have seen some homeless men, but I had never seen a homeless woman in my 18 years of living here.”
They were invisible to him. When he found the homeless women he was seeking, he discovered another obstacle: “It is hard to even approach a homeless person with a camera whose cost is out of proportion to the scale of their life. It feels like an invasion of privacy.”
Santa Cruz-based Margo Duvall, a professional artist and photographer, employed a medium format camera using black-and-white film she developed in a darkroom, which she says forced her to take time to weigh the power of the images.
“It made me really think about the portraits,” she says. “I thought about what it would mean to photograph these ladies, respectfully, honoring them, in a way the viewers can connect to.”
Whilden met local filmmaker and videographer Timothy Barrett, a graduate of CSUMB’s Teledramatic Arts and Technology department, at the Occupy Monterey encampment at Veterans Park. He’s started filming the documentary portion of the exhibition, also called Becoming Visible, in which he interviews homeless women and service providers. The film is currently 15 minutes long, but he’s expanding it to feature length and plans to screen it locally and submit it to festivals.
“It may not be comfortable to watch,” he says, “but it’s a good experience to watch it.”
Another project collaborator, Erika Fiske, was more familiar with the realities of their subjects than Wanderman, Duvall and Barrett: She was, herself, briefly homeless and living out of her car.
“I was so depressed, then one day I saw this homeless woman in a wheelchair with two dogs and I started asking her questions,” she says.
She started a series of profile articles for Cedar Street Times – a homeless person a week, nearly every week, since the start of the year.
“I felt better, writing about them,” she says. “I would keep finding homeless people and writing. I never get tired of writing their stories because they’re so different.”
Abridged versions of some of Fiske’s profile stories, written on a computer she got from nonprofit Loaves, Fishes & Computers (see story, p. 15), have been compiled into a booklet for sale at the Carl Cherry. Fiske was the only creative creator in the show who divulged she had been homeless; through the project, though, they all got close to their subjects’ lives.
There is a Saturday breakfast served at Lake El Estero, near the skate park, that few people seem to know much about – even including the homeless and hungry who gather there for free food and supplies like toiletries they’ve come to rely on.
“The Saturday breakfast is quite a moving experience,” photographer Vital says. “They start with a huge prayer circle, holding hands.”
“You see them all coming in on their bikes,” says Whilden. “They use propane tanks to cook eggs and potatoes for 100 people. Then they’re gone.”
“I asked who’s in charge and everyone said, ‘Well, nobody,’” Vital says.
But Mary, homeless for five years, seems to have a bead on it.
“There’s a woman named Kate, her father was minister,” Mary says. “She kept having this dream about serving coffee and donuts to a homeless man and thought she better start doing it.”
It’s also where many of the creators of the Becoming Visible exhibit began to find homeless women. With guidance from homeless people and advocates they met there, they branched out to encampments in the woods of Monterey, to tents among the dunes of Sand City, to cars on the streets of Salinas, to a park in Seaside. Wanderman was invited to various camps.
The point: “To be among them where they were living,” Reid says. “Places we would not know about.”
Reid describes one 77-year-old woman as the oldest homeless woman he’s ever met; she has a teaching credential and a college degree but no teeth, so chewing is beyond her and speaking is difficult. She became sick with pneumonia-like symptoms from sleeping outside. Fiske, the project’s writer, found her a place to stay with a Mexican family in Salinas; she is teaching their children English and math.
“People are falling off the merry-go-round,” Whilden says. “I met two college students who got laid off and are living in their cars, [exposed to] drunks and rapists and everybody else out there.”
She’s learned to spot the homeless.
“They’re on bicycles,” she says. “And they don’t have helmets. They’re not Hispanic so they’re not going to work. And they have backpacks. This whole new population of homeless people with bikes. They can go to a shelter in Sand City, look for jobs, use bike racks on buses. It’s a whole culture.”
Duvall says the first woman she was put in contact with was wary of accepting the meals, showers and shelter that service providers offered – “These things that we think are helpful,” Duvall says – because she had been followed and stalked by men.
“This one woman, she had this whole set-up you couldn’t even see from the road if you were walking beside it,” she says. “This carved-out place she had made her home.”
She met Vicky, a woman in her early 30s and homeless for about a year. Vicky and her boyfriend were on the streets when she found out she was pregnant. When the baby was born, the state took it away.
“She’s very upbeat, takes care of a lot of people in her community,” Duvall says of Vicky. “They all sleep in the same vicinity. There’s an older woman she kind of adopted that she makes sure gets enough to eat and gets back to shelter every night. A motherly role, even though she doesn’t have her own child.”
Vital was shown around Salinas’ Chinatown by a man who lost his home to Hurricane Katrina. There, she met several homeless women, including Maria, who told Vital she had come to the U.S. at age 16, worked in the fields of Watsonville for 30 years, and now finds herself on the streets.
“She looks up at me and says, ‘Now I’m retired.’ It’s heartwrenching.”
Duvall says a French woman, Anita, was “totally happy with her situation. She has family in the area but likes the freedom [being homeless] gives her, to be wherever she wants to be, sleep where she wants, not worry about anything.”
But that’s rare. Several project artists relayed that homeless people said they were constantly harassed by police because it’s illegal to sleep in one’s car or loiter, and residents don’t like them camping nearby. If they were not bothered, Whilden speculates, a city may become inundated. So homelessness is “criminalized,” as Reid says, and the homeless live in perpetual upheaval and, for women, fear.
“A lot of people don’t realize this but when you’re homeless you sleep with one eye open,” Mary says. “Or you don’t sleep. It’s a sad situation. They get nervous. They worry about things, women especially. A lot of them end up with high-stress issues. I’m fortunate I have a van that looks pretty good.”
Homeless women are extremely vulnerable to violence, says Glorietta Rowland, who for seven years was executive officer of the Coalition for Homeless Services Providers (selected as a recipient in this year’s Monterey County Gives! campaign), a clearninghouse for homeless agencies like the Franciscan Workers of Junipero Serra, Salvation Army and Shelter Outreach Plus. Reid and Whilden can’t forget the publicized story of a homeless woman reportedly raped outside of St. Mary’s early last month.
“Almost everybody on the street has been physically, psychologically or sexually abused,” Mary says. “I don’t want sympathy… Well, maybe that’s the thing that will change the situation. I’m hoping that God will put me in the right spot.”
Fiske thinks the bandwidth to bring others relief definitely exists.
“Our society is such a wealthy society,” she says. “There’s really no reason for them to be out there, struggling from day to day. In Canada, everybody has a place to live. Why can’t we have that? We have lots of vacant buildings. A few people have billions and billions of dollars, and then we have so many people with nothing. I sometimes cry. It’s so unjust. I was glad to see people doing something with Becoming Visible.”
Duvall’s black-and-white photographs are the most artistic and well-composed in the exhibit, capturing the weathered faces of her homeless women subjects smiling, thinking, staring. Ken Waterman’s color digital photos are more candid, like snapshots: A particularly melancholy one is called “Vicki and Nancy thinking,” composed of the two women sitting on a log, lost in mutual thoughts. Vital, the amateur who was scared to approach the women, captured them full-on, directly and naturally, with a guilelessness that shines through with more honesty and admiration than technique.
“Each photographer approaches it in a slightly different way,” says Carl Cherry’s Reese, who curated the show. “Margo’s are very beautiful portraits with a humanizing quality. Lina’s are much more gritty. Ken is something like a cross between the two, stark graphicness, [with] a warmth that comes through.”
The efforts of Becoming Visible are getting support outside of the gallery space. The Community Foundation for Monterey County has established the Fund for Homeless Women to accept contributions. And the Coalition for Homeless Service Providers has guided them along their building year, particularly, says Reid, former executive officer Rowland, who saw the increase in homeless women coming and relates a tangible and enlightening way the public can help the county’s homeless.
She’s recruiting volunteers for the homeless census in January 2013 – or just tips on any local homeless presence.
“As people go about their daily lives, it would be helpful for them to give the Coalition a call so they will know of [encampments],” she says.
Visual confirmation via the census enables federal HUD funding renewals that go to emergency shelters, transitional housing programs and permanent housing. Volunteers are trained and sent to specific areas with outreach workers familiar with the population navigating that environment. Instead of being shunned and invisible, they will be sought, seen, counted and paired with services.
The creators of Becoming Visible are conduits of the stories of the homeless women they encountered, but as fraught as it can be, they don’t want to be gatekeepers. In the show appear recordings of the women who tell their own stories in their own voices.
“When I walk down the street now, I smile at every homeless person I see,” Lina Vital says. “I’ll ask, ‘How are you doing?’ And they don’t ask me for anything. It’s changed me in a way I wasn’t even quite aware needed to be changed. I’m grateful. The truths these women shared with me are so endearing.”
Her voice trembles every so slightly.
“This makes me emotional, talking about it,” she says. “These women are amazing. I captured something so different, so unique, so beautiful, and so heartwarming.”
BECOMING VISIBLE: THE FACE OF HOMELESS WOMEN IN MONTEREY COUNTY is viewable 11am-4pm Mon-Fri, with an artists’ panel 2pm Sat, Nov. 17, at Carl Cherry Center, Fourth and Guadalupe, Carmel. Free to attend; donations welcome. 624-7491. Donations to the Community Foundation for Monterey County’s Fund for Homeless Women can be sent to 2354 Garden Road, Monterey, CA, 93940. The Coalition of Homeless Services Providers can be reached at 883-3080, www.chspmontereycounty.org
For more of the interview with Mary, access this link.