Hearing the Call…

Homelessness is a problem not unique to California, but it can be more obvious because, obviously, the gentler weather works in their favor. There were plenty of homeless people in every placed we’ve lived over the past five decades.

My first art studio in Santa Rosa was near a park that had been a hot mess the years before I moved there. Rampant drug use and sales were an issue. But over time, this was mostly resolved, and now it’s a place where anyone can enjoy a little bit of nature.

I met quite a few homeless people, which was disquieting after the coffee shop next door closed for the day at 3 p.m., and again when it closed for good. Fortunately, I had a Dutch door, which allowed me to chat with them when they knocked on my door. I could assess them slightly, and simply close the top of the door when things got iffy. I had quite a few rich conversations with some.

My most frightening encounter was during an open studio event one evening late in the year, when night comes early. My tiny studio was filled with visitors, all happily exploring my space.

Until one older woman in a cheetah coat erupted.

She overheard me talking to someone about how I imagined myself an artist of the distant past with my artwork. It had been a long day, I was tired, and I said “pretended” instead of “imagined.”

She exploded. “Pretend” seemed like a fake façade to her, and she ranted on for several minutes about lack of integrity.

I was stunned, and tried to clarify my intentions. But she wasn’t having it. The push-back made her angrier. And everyone else fled my studio in a heartbeat.

Except for two women who stood silently by.

I am not good in these situations. When I’m scared, I run. I am not good in conflicts, and aggressive people scare the bejeezus out of me.

But something in me was paying attention. Something in me realized I was “doing it wrong”.

So instead of being defensive, I focused on connection.

I can’t remember what I said at the time. It was wasn’t about me, it was about the cave. How climate change caused those people to see their whole way of life disappearing in a handful of years. How those paintings were a prayer, calling the horses back. How the horses represent hope, and courage, for me as an artist, and for the world.

She calmed down, and listened.

And then I gave her a little horse. I put it in her hand, put mine around hers. I told her I wanted her to have it as a reminder of that. That we all matter.

Then I gently led her to the door and said goodbye.

Now, to be fair, in my mind, I figured giving her something was a good way to get her to leave. But that’s not how my two remaining visitors saw it.

Turns out both of them had experience with this. One was a psychiatric nurse, one had a similar background. Both of them said, “We knew she was going to be trouble. We knew it could go south in a heartbeat. And we weren’t going to leave until we knew you would be okay.”

Wow! Talk about angels in odd places….!!

They both said I had handled it beautifully. Met her where she was. Saw her as a fellow human. Being kind and patient.

I was flabberghasted. I felt I didn’t deserve the praise. I told them my own selfish intentions. They wouldn’t have it. (One of them still shows up to my events from time to time.)

Now, as an insight, that was pretty powerful. But it gets better.

A couple years later, I saw her picture in our local newspaper, The Press Democrat.

It was an article about people who lived on the streets who had finally been rehomed. She was on of them. An apartment had been found for her. In fact, she’d been in it for a couple months by the time she came to my studio.

What blew my mind?

She said that living on the streets was so traumatizing, it had taken her a looooong time to heal and recover. She said she was still ‘crazy’ for almost a year after, and she was just beginning to envision a normal life for herself.

It made me realize that even a home for a homeless person is not enough. They need support services, some for awhile, some for the long haul. They need to finally feel safe. And they need people who care.

That made me a teensy bit bolder in my interactions with this population. I remember a beautiful conversation I had with one person who was transitioning to female. At the end of our conversation, I asked her what she needed, expecting to hear “money”, and I would have given her some. But said, “I’m just so hungry right now.” Fortunately, I had a giant bag of granola I’d brought in for my snack stash. I asked if that would work, and she lit up with joy. I gave her the whole bag. (A year later, she appeared in a similar article. She now lives in a tiny house settlement outside Santa Rosa. Another artist in my community at the time had donated original hand-painted house signs for each unit.)

My assumptions about how to help others has gone through many transitions over the years. First it was, “Don’t give them money, they’ll just spend it on booze and cigarettes!” So I didn’t give out money. Until our same local newspaper shared that, if people on sleeping on a sidewalk, and cigarettes and booze help them cope, why should we judge that?

From then on, I would give pan-handlers $10 or even $20, after reading it could make a difference. One elderly gentleman danced for joy when I gave him a $20. “I’m gonna go over to that (fast food place) and buy breakfast!”

But later I learned that money is better spent supporting the non-profits that serve the homeless. Money gained through begging simply encourages them to “stay put”. In fact, my new studio is close to a residential facility that is the first step towards rehoming this population. It’s temporary shelter that works with people who have taken that first step.

I drive by there at least twice a day. It can be daunting at times. There’s often someone who will walk in front of my car as I drive by, on their way to the bus stop up the road, sometimes obviously intentional. During the hours they need to vacate the premises, they gather along the street. They leave trash behind. It can be annoying.

But then I think, if this is their only feeling of control in their lives right now, I can handle that.

And if you’d like to read a story about the best public art project I’ve ever witnessed personally, check out this excerpt in article about Bud Snow’s project in my Learning to See series:

Bud Snow was someone I met during my studio years at South A Street in Santa Rosa. They do large-scale public art, colorful, vibrant murals, usually up high. The featured work on that page I linked was a mandala painted on a cemented area on the ground, in a park near my studio. It took them much longer to paint than usual, because passers-by could stand and watch them as they worked, asking questions and in total awe of the work.

Soon Bud Snow offered every visitor a chance to help paint the mandala! I did, and over a period of four days, I saw them interact in a beautiful, powerful way with every single visitor: Parents picking up their kids from the elementary school across the street. Local workers and business owners. Homeless people. Every single one of them was thrilled to take part. It was one of the finest, truest examples of ‘public art’ I’ve ever seen, involving members of the very community the art was meant to serve.

Yes, Bud Snow was paid for the mural. (Though the extra time spent with the public tripled the time it took, so they took a hit.) Yes, Bud Snow’s work is now a sort of very-public advertisement for their work. Each one enhances their reputation and their asking price.

And yet cities pay for public art because it’s considered a powerful force for good for their citizens. The premise is, art really is a gift that everyone deserves, not just wealthy collectors who will pay hundreds of millions of dollars for a single painting (of a long-dead artist)….”

I still remember the homeless guy who showed up as night fell, on Julia’s last day of painting the mural. He had a flashlight and held it for us as we helped Julia pack up her stuff in the dark.

It was obvious that he was happy to be part of a group, happy to help her, happy to be ‘of use’. He smiled the entire time. I can still see his face, gently revealed by the light he held in his hand.

I’m still learning, of course. But maybe some of my experiences can be a source of hope for others.

NextDoor, an online resource for individual neighborhoods, is often a place where people can complain at length about this issue. And sometimes, the lack of compassion, anger, resentment, and general angst about this population can get out of hand.

The latest outrage about homeless people is directed at a woman who helps herself to flowers in a neighbor’s yard. When told not to pick them anymore, she got angry. She now picks them and throws them in the street.

The discussion is almost evenly divided between “please be kind” and “get rid of these creeps!” Some of the responses were downright scary, scarier than most homeless people I’ve dealt with.

Here’s what I wrote today:

“FWIW, my partner of over 42 years brought me flowers on our first meet-up. They looked freshly picked, and he told me he’d picked them from a tree lawn on the way over. (He didn’t have a car at the time.) I told him most people do not want their flowers picked, and he said, I thought that’s why they put them near the sidewalk, so people could pick them. So there are plenty of people who think “public” flowers are for the public to pick. 😀

I want to say thanks and love to all the folks here who show some compassion for the homeless population. They are not all one population, not all live with addictions, not all have mental health issues, a lot of them age out of foster care, or have young children, or injuries that affect them deeply, and MOST of them do not want to be homeless.

But all of them want the power of their choices, as do we all. Even when they step up and transition towards a home, it can take months, if not years, to heal from the trauma of living on the streets. They can be annoying, they can be problematic, they can be downright scary, and some we SHOULD be scared of.

But they are all also unique human beings who cannot afford services on their own. If we really want to consider ourselves true human beings, we have to start by seeing them as human, too, as humans who have not had our own advantages of support, income, homes, health care, good choices (that worked out for US), and people who care.”

We have to understand that part of why we see them as “other” is a way to distance ourselves from their situation. We want to believe that this could NEVER happen to us.

And yet we all know we may be one accident, one paycheck, one disaster away from being in that same situation. It could happen to a loved one. It could happen to us.

We can choose to look away.

Or we can choose to find even the tiniest way of helping. With our donations, with our taxes, with our volunteer time, with our work, with our compassion.

Part of me desperately wants to volunteer again with schools, with animals, with hospice.

But something is telling me my next service might be right in front of me. It’s scary. I’m still afraid.

But it won’t hurt to find out.