Mind & Spirit

‘Without Walls’: Seeing Through the Eyes of the Homeless

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Visitors at one of this year’s ArtScene exhibits saw the world through the eyes of the homeless. See how this unique project came about, and how this simple idea started.

Tammy Yoder photographed the Jefferson Street Bridge when she was homeless for 4 months.

Tammy Yoder’s eyes are wide with anticipation as she walks into the meeting room at Bethesda Covenant Church in Rockford, which is now transformed into a gallery for the annual citywide Fall ArtScene.

“Is this mine?” she asks excitedly, making a beeline through the crowd to one photo in an exhibit of about 30 framed 8x10s, displayed on easels. “It looks so good!” She moves from side to side, viewing it from every possible angle. Soon, she’s joined by Bethesda member Therese Rowinski, the exhibit’s organizer, who explains the process she used to convert Yoder’s original color shot – the walkway under the Jefferson Street Bridge – to black and white.

Together, they look through an album of all the photos Yoder took when she participated in “Without Walls,” Rowinski’s project that asked homeless people in Rockford to photograph their lives for a week, using disposable cameras. A committee chose at least one photo from each photographer to enlarge, matte and frame for display during ArtScene.

As a member of Bethesda’s Outreach Committee, Rowinski suggested the project as a way to raise awareness about the city’s homeless, while at the same time supporting one of the church’s outreach ministries. The photos were sold at $75 each, with all proceeds going to Carpenter’s Place, a day shelter which helps homeless people to rebuild their lives through guidance and advocacy.

“I give all the credit to Therese,” says Bethesda Pastor Dave Lindfors. “The project is a natural outgrowth of our mission with Carpenter’s Place. We have a regular schedule of volunteers who serve meals there a few times a month and engage the people and get their stories.”

Rowinski, herself an artist, is an active member of Rockford’s art community – some of her paintings were on display at other ArtScene venues – so she’s very aware of the exposure such an event can generate. She recently earned a bachelor’s degree in business from Rockford College and has been trying to find a way to launch “Without Walls” for about six years.

“Years ago, I did a three-part research project for a sociology class, on the Homelessness Photography Project in New York,” she explains. “It just stuck with me, and I’ve tried to get it done so many times – when I was a student at Rock Valley, and then at Rockford College, and through local art organizations. It just never came together. When our church committee was talking about what we could do to reach out to the community, and at the same time, serve the community, it seemed like a perfect fit.”

Her committee members agreed. “It was creative and unique,” says Lindfors. “We decided that this was a project the church needed to underwrite.”

Rowinski contacted Kay Larrick, executive director at Carpenter’s Place, and Cathy Barsema, its co-founder and director of guest services, who lined up 12 homeless photographers. Rowinski met with them in early June, explained the project and distributed the cameras. She asked only that they document their world through their own eyes, truthfully and honestly, while respecting the rights of others.

“My sense was that it was important not to give them specific guidelines,” says Rowinski. “It needed to be extemporaneous.”

A week later, she collected the cameras, developed the photos, and then returned to Carpenter’s Place to discuss the images with the photographers. Only a few of them showed up to explain what the photos meant to them, but the overall results were impactful.

“Some shots were brutal, and some were incredibly beautiful,” Rowinski says. “Such a spectrum – a dilapidated building, and then a gorgeous sunset. I was taken aback by the emotional effect they had on me.” She swipes at a tear, her emotions still intense three months later.

Rowinski saw many duplicate photos – the Jefferson Street bridge, a campground where several of the homeless live, the bike path behind the library. No doubt, many of us have seen these folks in these spots. Among the general public, a common assumption regarding homeless people is that their situation is the result of poor choices, addictions, maybe a mental illness, even a conscious decision.

According to a 2012 report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, more than 636,000 people in the country experienced homelessness in 2011. Of these, only 17 percent are chronically homeless, and just 8 percent have been identified with substance abuse or mental health issues. While a majority stay in shelters or transitional housing, 38 percent live on the streets or other places not meant for human habitation.

“I’m not really sure what my perception of the homeless was, when I first went to Carpenter’s Place,” says Rowinski. “But I was shocked when I saw them all in line, early in the morning, waiting for breakfast. They’re ordinary people. They’re just like you and me.”

“When I’ve talked with them at Carpenter’s Place, a few, it seems, have made the choice to be where they are,” says Lindfors. “Others, however, have found themselves thrust into the situation – job loss, bad investment, wrong turn – and many are just one break away from getting back to normal.”

Such was the case for Yoder, who was homeless for four months, following a problem with drugs which led to a prison stay. “I’ve owned my house for nine years,” she says. “But while I was in jail, I got a notice that I was going to lose it because of unpaid taxes.”

Luckily, family members stepped in to help. They put her possessions in storage and rented the house out in order to cover the taxes, although they weren’t willing to take her in after she was released. “I don’t blame them,” Yoder says. “I’m thankful that they saved my house for me. They have themselves and their own families to take care of.”

She was able to sleep at Remedies in downtown Rockford, a domestic violence and substance abuse agency and shelter, which charges fees on a sliding scale. While receiving treatment and counseling, Yoder cleaned and performed other tasks at Remedies in exchange for receiving its services. At Carpenter’s Place, she was provided with food, items like personal hygiene products, and assistance with processes such as obtaining an ID, applying for jobs and filing legal paperwork. At the time of ArtScene, she’d been back living in her home for almost four months.

“Without Carpenter’s Place, I don’t know where I’d be,” Yoder says, choking up. “I’m just so grateful for them, and for Therese and everything I’ve learned.” She’s thrilled with the results of the project. “Each of these photos shows life through the eyes of a homeless person,” Yoder says. “Those who ‘have’ can see through the eyes of people who ‘don’t have.’ I love my photos. They remind me of where I was and the people I met.”

Rowinski added artistic effects to certain shots, converting some to black and white, posterizing a few so that they look like paintings. Within 40 minutes of the start of ArtScene, two prints sold. One buyer was Sarah Hoover of Rockford, who initially left empty-handed but returned to purchase ‘The Camp,’ shown above.“It’s a very lush scene, and I like that it looks like a painting,” says Hoover. “I camp, but not like this, on top of cardboard. I mean, it’s summer in this photo, but what do they do in winter?”

That’s exactly the type of response the Bethesda group wanted the exhibit to evoke. “I hope it touches people’s hearts and lets them see through others’ eyes,” says Rowinski. “All of the photographers expressed huge appreciation that someone let them know they matter, that someone said, ‘We want to know what your life is like.’”

Adds Lindfors: “I hope it motivates others to become involved – to go serve food or help out in some way.”

Yoder offers suggestions for those who’d like to assist the homeless they encounter. “Bring them a cup of coffee or a sandwich, even a new pair of socks – not money,” she urges. “I guarantee they’ll be very grateful.”

In all, “Without Walls” has sold 23 prints, and many people have asked where the exhibit will appear next. “It was better than I could have imagined,” Rowinski says.

Prints are still available for purchase. Call (815) 985-8462 for information.

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