What Art Can Do for Homelessness

Dr. Wes Browning is a mathematician, artist and columnist for Real Change News who’s witnessed decades of homelessness in Seattle. In the 1980s he was homeless himself, unable to work as a mathematician—he has a PhD from Cornell—due to Delayed Stress Syndrome stemming from childhood abuse. In those days he drove a Far West taxicab that gave him a street-level view of the emerging metropolis that had been dubbed “America’s Most Livable City” in the late ’70s by publications from Harper’s to the Christian Science Monitor. That national PR bonanza helped fuel the city’s first modern wave of displacement, gutting the low income housing and single room occupancy hotels south of downtown.

Comparing homelessness in the ’80s to our current crisis, Browning says, “There wasn’t as much of it, but it [was] just as bad for the people who [went] through it. There are more shelters now, but there are more people to go in the shelters. The shortage is the same.”

Seattle is now in the midst of another star turn as one of “America’s Most Livable Cities” (Forbes, Curbed, et al.) and a new construction boom powers an even bigger surge of gentrification and dislocation. The last One Night Count revealed that more than 4,500 people were sleeping outside in King County, a 19 percent increase over the previous year. Last November Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency on homelessness, and city officials and advocates have struggled to grapple with the enormity of the problem as forced removals of homeless encampments continue unabated.

In 1983 Mary Ellen Mark came to Seattle to photograph the growing population of downtown homeless kids for a LIFE magazine assignment. That foray resulted in a feature-length documentary, Streetwise, produced with her husband, director Martin Bell. It received an Academy Award nomination for its startling degree of access and the unflinching honesty with which it portrayed its nine troubled subjects. The film depicted gritty realities of street life—underage prostitution, drug use, physical violence—alongside moments of friendship and innocence.

Against our current backdrop of unrelenting displacement, Seattle Public Library presents Streetwise Revisited: A 30-Year Journey, a series of events running through Nov. 3 that includes screenings of the film, an exhibit of Mark’s photographs and a discussion of her work and legacy. Part of a push by the Library to stimulate discussion around youth and family homelessness, the programming centers on the 30-year relationship between the artist and Erin “Tiny” Blackwell, a central character in Streetwise whose difficult life and passage into adulthood Mark revisited in subsequent photographs.

Browning remembers seeing some of the kids from Streetwise around town back in the ’80s. He’s pretty sure one of them ran out on his cab fare once. Though he’s skeptical of documentaries that feature homeless people—“They tend to bolster stereotypes, so I don’t always approve”—he says he thinks the film had a huge impact on public awareness of the problem.

Browning’s seen it all before. I spoke to him over the phone on a Saturday afternoon as he manned the Real Change office. Occasionally he’d interrupt our conversation to dispatch street vendors who showed up to collect a fresh batch of newspapers during the midday lunch break.

In 1990 Browning, now housed, fought the homeless purges undertaken by the city in advance of the Goodwill Games, an international sporting event produced by billionaire Ted Turner to foster Soviet-U.S. relations. “There were extensive sweeps, more even than now, I think,” he says. “It’s the same as they do with the Olympics: Get the homeless people out of sight.”

A tent encampment was established in a parking lot next to the Kingdome. A traveling exhibit of art by homeless people made the rounds of rallies and public events in a borrowed van. A number of homeless advocacy organizations sprang from this period including the SHARE shelter network, of which Browning’s wife, Anitra Freeman, is current president.

The following year, the traveling art exhibit morphed into the Street Life Gallery on Second Avenue and Bell Street, founded by Michael Howell as a permanent home for the art of homeless and formerly homeless people. Browning became the gallery’s unofficial assistant, and one of his paintings ended up on the cover of the very first issue of Real Change. The gallery closed in 2003.

Many of the connections Browning has made in the homeless community came through art. Back when he was helping run Street Life Gallery, his future wife was teaching poetry workshops there. He speaks matter-of-factly about art’s power to tap human potential and defy stereotypes. Browning believes the practice of creativity can offer the homeless a means of focus and escape from the harsh realities of survival. It can also deepen our understanding of the city’s most marginalized in the same way that Streetwise invoked compassion for its subjects.

“If you’re homeless, people think of you as just a bum, just a drunk, a nobody who has no talent. You’re nothing,” he says. “Then they see you do art: ‘Oh my God, he’s got talent. He can do something.’ They start to realize you’re not homeless because you’re lazy and don’t care about anything; you’re just homeless, that’s all. The art proves that you have talent that could be put to use. It’s one way to do that.”

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