Opportunities Not Handouts

Making the Invisible Become Visible

Liz Powers
Jun 29, 2016 · 6 min read

I have worked with individuals experiencing homelessness for the last 10 years. I have listened for the last 10 years. I have been inspired for the last 10 years.

Something I constantly think about is how we can make more opportunities for people to change their own lives. In the social change world the normal model is creating handouts.

Liz Powers with Scott Benner and Kitty Zen. Scott and Kitty are both artists who sell their work through ArtLifting.

America is the wealthiest country in the world. America has over 500,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given day.

How could this be possible?

How does someone become homeless?

How can this be solved?

People always ask me these questions. They are great questions. They are difficult questions.

The hardest question of them all is “How can this be solved?” One of my biggest frustrations of the media for a long, long time has been the focus on the negative. It is easy to focus on a problem. It is much harder to focus on solutions.

When over 60 media outlets announced they would be setting aside competition in order to provide joint coverage on the causes of and solutions for homelessness, I knew I had to be involved.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated that 564,708 individuals were experiencing homelessness on a single night in January of 2015. It is obviously difficult to have an accurate census of homelessness. That number is likely higher than anyone can count because so many individuals experiencing homelessness are invisible.

Scott Benner, Charles Blackwell, Aron Washington and Mike Gosbee find their visibility through art.

Don’t awkwardly look down and walk to the other side of the sidewalk when you see a homeless person. Smile and make eye contact. Say “Hi.” Say “Have a good day.” How would you feel if people purposefully avoided you all the time? You would feel inhuman.

This may sound naive. But given that I have been in the field for a while, give me a second to explain. The solution could be much simpler than we could ever expect.

Over the last decade, homeless clients have repeatedly told me,

“Everyone always focuses on the negative in me. The fact that I happen to not have housing right now. The fact that I am in a wheelchair.”

This has made the wheels turn in my head. Okay, how about we flip this problem on its head? Instead of focusing on the negative, why don’t we focus on the positive? Instead of obsessing over the fact that someone happens to be homeless, why don’t we open up our eyes to his or her talents?”

My simple way to do that is to focus on the talents of artists in shelters across the country. One little known fact is that there are thousands of existing art groups across the U.S. The aim of many of the groups is art therapy. Overcoming trauma through a creative outlet. My job used to be running art groups in Boston. I was absolutely amazed by the raw talent that surrounded me.

Art is a lifeline for numerous people who are living through hard times, and it can be a starting point for change and opportunity. By acknowledging the talent of these artists — these people — before the status of their housing or living situation, we can help spread positivity and inspire others.

Stacey Williams is an artist from Boston experiencing homelessness. She finds her peace in painting portraits.

“ArtLifting is, by no means, a total solution, but participation by homeless — or other marginalized persons — can be tremendously affirming, sending a message that ‘What I do counts, is worth something; that I am not totally dependent on the charity of others, but can use my abilities to help lift myself out of this hole.’” — Fred Berman, Senior Associate at the National Center on Family Homelessness.

I saw amazing artwork stuck in the basements of shelters. This was not because the work was not good. This was not because the art therapists didn’t care. This was simply because most agencies and shelters do not have the resources to provide a gallery or shop for their artists.

With the goal of providing visibility to this enormous talent, I began ArtLifting with my brother Spencer in December of 2013. We wanted to create opportunities for real change and realized that these artists needed a marketplace — one that was open year-round — in order to truly connect with a larger community. We strived to create a larger platform for artists living with homelessness and disabilities to share their art with a global audience.

By shining the light on this talent, we are transforming people’s lives. This simple spotlight makes an invisible person be seen. Seen for the right things. For talent. Rather than poverty. This spotlight has been transformational.

Eric Lewis Basher and Jo Jackson are artists from San Fransisco. They create art in the city’s Hospitality House, a shelter and community arts center.

5 of ArtLifting’s first artists gained housing. This wasn’t simply because of money earned. It was largely because of the confidence boost. The hope had a domino effect of positivity on their lives. Several artists told me that being noticed for their talents gave them energy to do lots of housing applications and get side jobs. ArtLifting has since expanded to work with 80 artists in 11 cities across the country.

Seeing the outpouring of news coverage on homelessness in San Francisco gives me hope — not that we’ll find THE solution for our fellow citizens living with homelessness, but that we’ll find more ways to provide assistance and offer smaller solutions to pieces of a larger puzzle.

A simple change in perspective or admiration of a talent is sometimes all that’s needed to set a positive series of events in motion. Kitty Zen is an ArtLifting artist who has experienced chronic homelessness since the age of 16. She explains how it feels to share and sell her art:

“It makes me feel like I must be doing something right in a way that I can’t convince myself, ‘Well, I’m not good enough.’ This is what I can do, so this is what I will do. It feels amazing.”

Kitty Zen used to sell her artwork off of a blanket in Boston Common; she was recently one of four artists whose work was displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts for its Memorial Day Open House.

While most individuals experiencing homelessness do not happen to be artists, they all have inspiring talents. We simply have to open our eyes to acknowledge these talents. And think about how we can shine a spotlight on these talents for others to see.

Acknowledgement — it’s a simple but powerful action. Through acknowledgment, we encourage understanding, dialogue, and connection. By coming together, we can enact change, and the first step of this process will always be recognition of our fellow human.

Programs and businesses that aid in this recognition, which can be implemented within existing infrastructures and that create markets and opportunities for people living with homelessness, are an intriguing avenue for change that ArtLifting encourages others to explore.

I challenge you to answer the question, “How can I truly change lives by creating opportunity not merely handouts?”

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