“I’m over this life,” said a homeless man named Bobby, as he was hanging out in Tent City with Rachel Nash, the resident art therapist for The Human Impact, a homeless services organization.
“And I think I’m ready to do something about it,” he continued, after a particular breakthrough. He’d never wanted to participate before, relates Nash. “He was too cool to make art. But it didn't matter in this instance, it was the space that we created which felt safe enough for him to open up and start a new conversation.”
While art therapy might not be on the forefront of most homeless organizations’ agendas, Nash, who has worked with The Human Impact since 2013 leading weekly art classes in the homeless encampments, insists that it allows people look at the barriers in their lives that have kept them homeless. Also, making art gives them something to do other than using drugs.
“It provides a very safe place for people to talk about issues, and it gives people room to problem solve,” Nash says. “Being creative is active problem solving. Our hope is that that would carry out into creative thinking about what’s happening in their lives.”
The founder of The Human Impact, Elisabeth Jordan, had spent a lot of time with Bobby but she had never heard him talk like that, Nash says. Now Bobby lives in an apartment.
It isn’t too surprising that the organization would implement art therapy when you consider the fact that the organization was born from creative problem solving in the arts.
Jordan came from an artist development background in the music industry, looking at what each artist needs to improve their craft, and essentially applies the same mentality when working with the homeless. She’s spent every Tuesday and Thursday down in Tent City since 2013, getting to know the individuals, their weaknesses and strengths, and most important for her mission, what got each of them into homelessness and what can help them get out of it.
“There’s no universal cause of homelessness, and most people didn't get there overnight,” says Jordan. “We go to the streets and we build relationships. Over time people start to trust us, and they share with us their deeper need … and their deeper root causes for being homeless. Then we step in with those material things and support them as they take steps.
“This is why we have chronic homelessness,” she continues. “People get into housing, but if the deeper issues haven't been addressed, a lot of people come back out to the streets.”
Jordan sounds like an expert on homelessness, a passion project she fell into almost accidentally in 2013 after she lost her corporate job.
“I started to get curious about the other side of Dallas. I had grown up in Highland Park, really insulated from poverty. I learned that South Dallas was the poorest part of Dallas, and I started going down and visiting different nonprofits and getting to know different people.”
Larry James, the CEO of City Square, a services organization for the poor, invited her to go sit on a street corner south of Deep Ellum to meet the homeless, and it was there that Jordan’s vision was born.
“Something in me really came alive that day. Basically I never stopped going back,” she says.
Jordan has learned from her work that there four main reasons for homelessness: addiction, job loss, death of a loved one or mental illness, which is where Nash’s therapy comes into play. And this summer Nash implemented an entirely new art project — giving the homeless disposable cameras and asking them to capture the world from their perspective.
The feedback from the participants was overwhelming, she says.
“Thank you for allowing us to be the ones to take the pictures, and not taking the pictures of us,” a homeless man named Paul told her. “People come in all the time and give us food and then they take our pictures. You can't really say no because they're giving you food.”
“You can tell that something didn't sit right with him about that, and that was very eye-opening to me,” says Nash. “Even if you have good intentions with the pictures that you're taking, you still hold the position of power, so to give them the cameras was empowering them.”
Another man named Gary told her that he got an energy boost from the project and that he felt like he was part of a broader community.
Jordan supported the project when Nash pitched it. “We didn’t want to make the homeless a project. … We didn’t want to tell their stories for them,” says Jordan.
Part of Jordan’s mission in giving the homeless a voice through art is to also bring homelessness into the public eye. The organization focused on that goal on Thursday night during The Human Impact’s “Streetview” fundraiser, when photos from the project were displayed for one night at the Common Desk.
Proceeds raised from the $40 ticket sales will fund resources and operations for the organization and services like taking the homeless to doctors appointments, AA meetings and church.
One photo by a man named David shows an open cup of Ramen soup, a bag of chips and an empty food wrapper on the concrete, speaking volumes about his mealtime rituals. His finger is a blur in the frame. Others show a line of people from behind, waiting for food, perhaps? And there’s another beautifully composed, tight shot of peoples’ feet on the cardboard palettes they use to sleep on.
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Many of the photos are impromptu portraits of fellow homeless people: in profile, posing with hand on hip, or flipping the bird to the camera. In most there is a sense of community and congeniality — men are gathered around a makeshift table playing dominoes, and they look amused and maybe caught off-guard by the photographer.
The organization hopes that they can make a traveling exhibit from the photos, which are raw, honest and surprisingly good when considering things like composition and lighting.
“[These are] people who are in some of the lowest places in their lives … but they still have things to offer the world, and they still have excitement and curiosity about their own creativity,” says Jordan. “I’m passionate about the arts. They're part of what reminds us that we're human.”