by Ariel Messman-Rucker
[dropcap]H[/dropcap]omelessness is an unseen epidemic, virtually ignored by our wealth-obsessed culture. But St. Mary’s Center in Oakland is a rare beacon of hope where impoverished seniors find help and solace in a world that largely overlooks and shuns them.
The people at St. Mary’s Center work every day to provide homeless and extremely low-income seniors with comprehensive services to take care of their most immediate needs of food and shelter, as well as providing advocacy, money management, help finding long-term housing, addiction recovery programs, mental health treatment and classes.
As part of St. Mary’s winter shelter program, seniors staying in the shelter take part in daily classes that provide education and social enrichment, including an art course taught by Susan Werner that functions both as a way to engage participants and to help them work through the pressing issues they are facing.
“Working with a homeless population is working with people who have felt quite isolated,” Werner said. “Given our current economic and social conditions, people have felt quite hopeless about getting their needs met. So, in coming to St. Mary’s Center, they are in a culture of belonging. Here, they feel less isolated in a group where they find more commonality and similarity with other people and where there is more care and advocacy for everyone’s basic needs.”
Every week, Werner invites the seniors to work with different artistic mediums to explore their emotions and shared experiences. They sculpt with clay, paint, use pastels, draw and create collages.
Werner infuses her love and passion for art and the creative process into every class. “St. Mary’s Center recognizes the significance of our creativity as human beings,” she said. “As people come here to change their life, engaging in life as a creative process is significant to that transformation.”
She works to create an environment of acceptance where everyone is free to express themselves and everyone feels they are heard and understood. She wants participants to see the intrinsic value in each other. This is something that society in general sadly overlooks, but it seems to come as second nature to Werner herself.
“My experience with offering a class to people who are homeless and extremely poor — and part of the segment of our society that are disregarded, disowned, feared — is to welcome people to be who they are and to the meaningfulness of their lives,” Werner said.
“So my approach to doing any creative process with them is to first create an environment that is welcoming, that invites each person to explore and discover. It’s not an approach that teaches an art technique or focuses on a product. The approach is very much about a person becoming more self-aware. And the other part of it is a greater sense of belonging, self-acceptance, and that happens in the group context.”
Street Spirit at St. Mary’s
For the past few years, Street Spirit has become a key part of an art project created by the seniors in the winter shelter program. Werner sets issues of Street Spirit in front of the group and asks them to create a collage that expresses what it was like to be homeless.
“Street Spirit brings a big heart and nobility to people who are suffering these conditions of poverty, and it raises people up,” Werner said. “Street Spirit is where they can already feel a noble spirit rising up — that’s the Street Spirit approach.
“We want to recognize the value of people — especially those who are living in these circumstances — and Street Spirit has always had such a deep appreciation for the dignity and the beauty and the wisdom of the people.”
One important goal of the art class is to make everyone feel accepted and as though they matter, and the project uses Street Spirit to help make this possible, Werner said.
“It is so important to get seen and mirrored and reflected for our innate wisdom,” she said. “And I think Street Spirit — this is the voice of the people. It makes real a humanity that is not acknowledged in other venues, so it is a wonderful resource. And from it the seeds are planted that their voice matters and their needs are important.”
Using images of homelessness from the pages of Street Spirit and reflecting on the writings about their plight to create art is a cathartic and empowering experience for many of the seniors, she said.
“Street Spirit gave these strong visuals and these strong statements of experiences of being homeless,” Werner said. “And that was very important, that people either got to express what was really so painful about being homeless for themselves, or the conditions of other people. The perspective is always that if we can express what is tragic in their lives or in our society, it’s also with the hope of making something better.”
Hope for a better life
Keith Arivnwine, age 57, was homeless for over two years before finding his way to St. Mary’s, and his art project illustrates how art can allow people to find hope for a better life. Arivnwine created two collages stacked on top of each other. The top picture reflects on what his life was like while he was homeless, and the bottom one captures his hopes and dreams for the future.
“When I first got in the class,” Arivnwine said, “I was still going through a lot of things and this top piece is like where I was staying when I was homeless. I was like what you would call a squatter. So I was squatting and this was the house I was squatting in and I drew it in my mind to make me really feel that.”
For Keith Arivnwine, using art to create an image of his own homelessness turned out to be a deeply transformative experience. Although he began by creating art showing the hardships of being homeless, after a week or two, he said, his focus somehow shifted to a hope-filled image of a better tomorrow.
Arivnwine explained, “It just happened — I didn’t feel that no more. It’s like I had moved on by the grace of God. By doing it through my art, this class gave me the opportunity to have some closure.”
“My new focus was on this,” he said, pointing to various pictures he used in the collage to portray his hopes for a future home and a better life.
“This is my new focus with the help of St. Mary’s and all of the beautiful people here that have really been helping me to change my life and to get things in perspective, like housing and other things I’m trying to get in order.
“They’ve been in my corner and now this is what I see in my life. I see my apartment and I see it the way I have it all designed and I see this real visually. I mean, I really feel this — the idea of it. Being here at St. Mary’s Center with all the help and everything that’s going on, I have a new hope that I can really see and feel in my heart. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s going to happen. Hope is one thing, but to know — I know it and it’s going to happen.”
Before coming to St. Mary’s, Arivnwine survived by squatting, and he had fallen into a kind of self-pity that had drained his strength and hope. He was amazed to find that the art class helped to restore his spirits and revive his hope.
“Being homeless, you’re in a different world,” he said. “It was like I had lost a lot of strength of wanting to do something different. It was lonely. I had no hope — really I didn’t for a long time.”
He had grown weary of the loneliness and sorrow of life on the streets, yet even though he wanted to find a better life, he couldn’t seem to find a way out. At that low point, he somehow found the way to St. Mary’s Center.
“I had come to the conclusion that I was tired of that lifestyle,” he said. “I wanted some help and really didn’t know how to find it. But by the grace of God, he led me here and these people helped me and now things are really looking up for me. I really think that it’s going to be alright.”
All alone in the rain
Shane, another of the homeless seniors in the art class, has been homeless for the past 18 years. He only came to St. Mary’s on New Year’s Eve, looking for a way to get out of the cold. He was accepted into the winter shelter and began the art class.
While looking through the stacks of Street Spirit issues for the assignment, Shane was instantly attracted to a picture taken by photographer Robert L. Terrell of a homeless woman sitting on the sidewalk with rain pouring down around her. He felt an instant connection with the woman’s stark circumstances.
“It came to me just like that,” Shane said with a snap of his fingers. “It reminds me of when I first got on the streets when I used to sit in the water. That’s me, but in a different form, and I know exactly what’s going through her mind, how she’s feeling in that position on the street and in that water.”
Shane cut the photo out of Street Spirit and mounted it above a poem he wrote about what the woman in the picture would need to survive a rainy winter on the streets. Shane’s poem lets the reader see the woman sitting all alone in the rain.
“This is real.
She has no house
She is learning to live on the streets
She has a long way to go
First she must learn how to stay dry
She must learn how to make
a street house
She must get rain gear
She will make it if she tries hard
I DID. I AM PROOF.”
Describing his strong personal reaction to the photograph, Shane said, “I know exactly what’s going through her mind, how she’s feeling in that position on the street, sitting like that in that water. First thing she’s got to have is rain gear because she can’t tread water.”
Shane explained what he meant by writing that the woman must learn to make “a street house” by recalling the kinds of makeshift shelters he himself fashioned when he lived on the street.
“First thing I made it out of is just cardboard,” he said. “Then I bought a $29 tent. Then when Caltrans come, you just put it back together, put the tent back in the box, then my other personal belongings I’d stick behind the freeway. Caltrans used to come once a week.
“I used to go wash cars, collect bottles and cans, but I‘d keep the tent with me everywhere I go. You also need a pair of pliers for a water spigot so you could get water from somebody’s yard all the time.
“Those are the main things. She has a long way to go. She must learn how to have a street house and tent, she must have that rain gear. She can make it ‘cause I sure did.”
Other seniors made beautiful collages by using images and text from Street Spirit and then adding their own words, poems and drawings to express their personal experience of homelessness.
Werner said her job is extremely rewarding because of the power of the creative process to change people’s lives. With the use of different artistic mediums, she is able to guide people through a journey of self-exploration. Along the way, she has been able to bear witness to amazing personal transformations.
“It’s kind of awesome,” Werner said of her work. “I trust in our human nature to be truly connected and creative and compassionate toward all. And I see myself really as a facilitator of people’s waking up to their own sense of personal value and life potential.”
For some people, being asked to create art and become part of a group can be paralyzing. Many are resistant at first.
While many of the seniors say how much they have gotten out of being a part of Werner’s art class, a number of them dragged their feet when they first arrived at St. Mary’s Center, and refused to take part in creating art.
Angela Gill, 57, said she resisted participating at first, and built “a tall wall” around her. She built that wall because she came to St. Mary’s with her self-esteem shattered.
Gill was forced to quit her job three years ago after an injury when she slipped and fell. She was denied unemployment benefits, and state disability only lasted a year. After that she was unable to pay her rent and was evicted, leaving her homeless since last August. After bouncing around for months, she finally came to St. Mary’s in December.
“I shut down because I couldn’t work anymore,” Gill said. “I couldn’t get up and stay busy, you know, do something positive.” The experience was hard on her, she said, “because I’m an independent woman. So I felt like my life was all over.”
Although Angela Gill was extremely resistant to participating in the art class, Susan Werner never gave up on her. Soon the support of Werner and the group allowed Gill to open up and slowly build her self-confidence back.
“Thanks to Susan, she brought a lot of stuff out of me because I was shut down and I was hidden,” Gill said, on the edge of tears. “I was hiding and running from her because I didn’t want to deal with it. But once I did, once she got a hold of me, I was able to express my feelings with art.
“I know there is hope — I believe it. I just feel like a heavy load is being lifted off of my shoulders and I’m just walking through one day at a time.”
One of the most profound experiences Gill has had in her time at St. Mary’s was getting a chance to work with clay. She found herself sculpting a beautiful flower which she painted bright red and titled, “Tree of Life: Breaking down my walls. I let go and give all to God.”
The flower sculpture is now a metaphor for Gill because it reminds her that with care and support, she too can blossom and grow into the best version of herself.
“I believe this is my first art piece because I done it with my heart,” Gill said. “I put my heart into it and all the struggles and everything. I needed something to hold on to.”
When she began the art class, she said she “really didn’t have any feelings for art.” But now, she explains how much the artwork has meant to her, and how much Susan Werner has helped her.
“After that, I started feeling a little better about myself and about the art because it brings a lot out — it brings what’s inside of me out. So it’s like it blossoms. Now I feel I’m blooming.”
To those who only view the displays of artwork at St. Mary’s, Werner’s work may seem to be just a matter of paint and clay and drawings. But, in reality, through art she becomes a counselor, a confidant, and a source of guidance.
The art projects she assigns gives the seniors a way to open up and become more expressive and helps them to crystallize their desires for the future. Several of her students said that she is able to instill hope in the hearts and minds of the homeless people she works with.
Gill said she had “built up a wall so tall” to keep people out. Now she also attends the women’s group at St. Mary’s and goes to outside AA meetings. It’s all part of her onward journey that began in the art group.
“This is a lovely place,” she said. “They’re going to help me with a place, to get my apartment and stuff and I’m going to still be at St. Mary’s because I love St. Mary’s. I’m going to give back.”
Losing a home at age 63
When Bruce lost his house at the age of 63, a friend suggested he go to St. Mary’s Center to get help. Now, he is living in their winter shelter, trying to put his life back together.
When he was first told about St. Mary’s art program, he said, “I sort of rebelled, pushed against it at first. I was just like, ‘Leave me alone, I really want to feel bad right now.’ Plus I couldn’t see at the time how this artwork or whatever could help, but it has.”
Bruce was suffering in the aftermath of losing his house, and his spirits were so low he didn’t want to work or be involved. But he soon found that Susan Werner gave him chance after chance to get involved in the community, and instead of pressuring him, she kept encouraging him and helping him.
That made all the difference. “I watched Susan and she is just so into it and she doesn’t let the grumbling affect her,” he said. “She continually gives you another chance.”
Werner’s patience and encouragement enabled Bruce to see things with different eyes, and he realized that getting involved in the art class was an opportunity to grow and learn, not a burden.
“Now I am grateful and thankful to be here and being given another chance to get it right,” Bruce said. “In addition to that, I feel very fortunate that there is someone here like Susan. I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined that there would be an opportunity to relieve some of my stress and suffering and be able to take a breath here in this journey of getting back on the right track.”
He ended up spending many days working on his visions and ideas in the art class. “I’ve been able to get up and go out back into the world and feel alive again,” Bruce said. “It’s given me a chance to not suffer and cry and moan and complain, but to do something about this.”
Elizabeth Teal, 61, has been homeless at different periods of her life, beginning when she was 13 and ran away from a foster care home. Last year she was living under the freeway. But she always denies being homeless “because I don’t smell homeless and I don’t look homeless.”
Women forced to live on the street face serious dangers, as well as social disapproval. “If you’re a girl you’ve got to play it real smooth and not tell people you’re homeless,” Teal said. “That builds a wall because the truth is you’re lying to people — you’re starving and you’re hungry.”
Life on the streets has taken a toll on her spirits, and Teal said that “when I feel real depressed,” doing her art projects at St. Mary’s helps to lift her spirits. “You get to put what you feel inside, or stuff that you see, on paper,” she said.
As part of her collage, Teal painted a picture of a boat and titled it “Red Sails in the Sunset.” She called it an image of her life after she leaves St. Mary’s for permanent housing.
“I always think a safe place for me is in a sailboat,” she said. “When you’re in a boat you’re like rocked to sleep. You’re in the hands of Jesus. When I’m here at St. Mary’s, I rock to sleep on my little cot.”
The search for housing
As people grow older, survival on the streets becomes more difficult, more dangerous, and takes a greater toll on their health. Housing becomes a matter of life-and-death importance for many seniors, and it figures prominently in the artworks created at St. Mary’s Center.
Lloyd Sandstrom knows from personal experience how difficult it is to find affordable housing in Oakland. “It has come to the point where it’s luck of the draw as to whether or not you get affordable housing, and it’s very politicized,” he said.
Sandstrom, age 58, remembers a time when the nation was far more committed to building public housing and President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty.
“The problem is that people aren’t angry,” Sandstrom said. “I’m old enough to remember when Lyndon Johnson started the public housing program and we actually had a commitment that no one should live in poverty, no one should not have a safe, affordable place to live. But now nobody talks about that anymore.”
That may be true of mainstream society, but people at St. Mary’s Center do indeed talk about the need to eradicate poverty and to ensure that all people can live in dignity with affordable housing, medical care, living wages and good food.
Werner sees the connection between individual change and political change, and she describes the intersection of art and social justice. Because the members of her art class have experienced in their own lives both personal hardships and social injustice, their art reflects both these dimensions of change — the personal and the political.
That is why she uses issues of Street Spirit in her class to illuminate the pathways to change. Werner said, “As the champions of change, Street Spirit is a voice for this collective unity in transforming and making a more just society.”
She has found that homeless and low-income people have a uniquely meaningful perspective on how to create both inner and outer change.
She said, “What I find is that once people do have more positive experiences of themselves — and even of opening to their own pain or their own despair, their own sense of hopelessness — once they have a chance to safely express those experiences, it just opens them up to their own sense of value.”
The same people who once felt lost and hopeless and alone are deeply moved when they discover their own voice and become part of a caring community.
“They can then better use their voice and participate in the broader community,” Werner said. “After the art experience, people who have felt so left out in life then begin to contribute to our Hope and Justice program. They take more leadership in speaking on behalf of the voiceless in our community.”
[typography font=”Cardo” size=”14″ size_format=”px”]To see many of the artworks and collages created by homeless seniors at St. Mary’s Center see the photo-essay entitled “St. Mary’s Center Showcases the Artworks of Homeless Seniors” click here.[/typography]