Photography exhibit seeks to give a ‘face and voice’ to those experiencing homelessness
“One of the big things I have learned is that almost everyone experiencing homelessness is in pain,” says Annette March. “That pain is unnecessary. More than 3,500 people in Santa Cruz are suffering needlessly, and that’s not OK with me.”
March, a retired professor in the division of humanities and communication at Cal State Monterey Bay, is the founder and project director of Not the Other: Oral Histories of People Experiencing Homelessness. The project’s aim is to give a “face and voice” to the often marginalized homeless population of Santa Cruz County, which is comprised of an estimated 3,536 individuals, according to the 2013 Homeless Census and Survey conducted by Applied Survey Research.
In order to give agency to those experiencing homelessness in the community, March and her team have composed a photography exhibit featuring local homeless individuals, which will be displayed at the downtown branch of the Santa Cruz Public Library April 1 through June 28, with a First Friday opening reception on April 4 from 5-8 p.m.
In addition to the exhibit, March and the project’s team have utilized a variety of media, including a website, videos, a short film, presentations, an upcoming theatre performance, and ultimately a book to showcase the life stories and struggles of those in the community who live without a conventional home.
March first conceived of the project in the fall of 2012 through the friendships she had built with homeless on daily walks through her neighborhood near Upper Ocean Street, where she has lived for 23 years. Through talks with her unhoused friends, March became aware of what she describes as a growing conversation among the housed community about implementing policies that restrict the ability of homeless people to survive. Sleeping bans, parking bans, panhandling restrictions, and other local policies fueled this, she says.
“That was really worrisome to me,” says March. “I knew I was going to do something, but I didn’t know what.”
With her training as an ethnographer, March initially thought she should author a book containing the oral histories of the homeless in Santa Cruz County, but then had an epiphany that the project’s message should be communicated through a range of media.
March first began to reach out to the homeless community working as a volunteer at the Homeless Services Center in the City of Santa Cruz in January 2013 to get a better grasp on her project. Last June, with the scope of her project in mind, March sought out a team of volunteers who would aid her in her labor of love.
“The project team came together as an act of grace,” says March. “I am not a Christian, but that is what I feel happened. I would need somebody to work with, and that person would appear, and not just a person, but the very right person.”
One of those people is Kati Greaney, videographer, photographer, and editor with the project. After receiving her master’s degree in social documentation from UC Santa Cruz and creating a documentary about agriculture in Cuba, Greaney sought out a new project. She was introduced to March and her undertaking through a professor at UCSC.
“I have always been connected to the homeless population here,” says Greaney. “I’ve noticed that there is this split in the community that stuck out to me, and I always wanted to be some sort of bridge, and I felt like that’s what this project was.”
In July 2013, March began to ask some of the homeless individuals at the Homeless Services Center if they would be willing to be interviewed and subsequently found herself inundated with volunteers.
“It turns out that the homeless community is really tight,” says March. “If you remember what the grapevine was like in high school, the homeless community’s grapevine is 10 times as fast.”
At the end of their story collecting in December, March and her team had conducted 40 interviews. One of those stories is of Janet, a lively 59-year-old grandmother who was once a commuter to Silicon Valley. After her children had grown, Janet decided to quit her job over the hill and work in Santa Cruz. She lost her job and apartment about five years ago, and has been struggling with homelessness ever since. Janet has lived in tents and cars, and currently resides in a colorfully adorned truck with her canine companion.
“I’ve never been addicted to anything. I’m not mentally ill. I just had a financial crisis at one point in my life and it has brought me downhill further and further,” says Janet. “This is it, and I’m accepting it.”
Janet has served as an advocate for the local homeless community in various forms since she lost her apartment. At one point, Janet was asked to be a part of the Smart Solutions to Homelessness group as a spokesperson for the homeless community, but after a year, Janet became so frustrated with what she saw as the lack of actual change that she decided to quit. After tendering her resignation to the group, Janet was asked to attend one last meeting to voice her concerns.
“I kind of let them have it,” says Janet. “I said, ‘It’s been a year. I’m still living in my truck. Everyone else I know is still living the same lifestyle, and I don’t see any progress as a homeless person.’”
Janet’s stories and others can be viewed on the project’s website, oralhistoriesproject.org, which contains both videos and transcripts of the interviews conducted by March and her team. The 20-minute film created from interview excerpts will be presented at the Reel Works Film Festival on Monday, April 28. A theatrical performance is also in the works, but a venue has yet to be booked.
The photography exhibition at the downtown library branch, which is a part of the library’s larger exhibit “Cultures Made Visible,” will pair photos with powerful quotations taken from March’s interviews. Greaney points to the library as an ideal setting for the exhibit because it serves as a nexus for those in the homeless and housed communities.
“It feels important for it to be there instead of some elite gallery,” says Greaney.
The project’s goal is not to provide solutions to the complex problem of homelessness, but to shift the perceptions of the housed community in Santa Cruz County. They are targeting what March and Greaney both feel is a prevalent false sense of superiority among housed citizens.
“I see how much othering happens,” says Greaney. “Even when people don’t know it, they feel pity or they feel something different toward homeless people, but people are just people, living their lives, trying to forge ahead and make their way.”
Funding for the project came largely from March herself, but Not the Other: Oral Histories of People Experiencing Homelessness did receive contributions from Community Printers, Santa Cruz Sunrise Rotary Club, and one private donor, and also works with the Homeless Services Center as a fiscal partner. Donations for the project can be made through the project’s website or through the Homeless Services Center.
As for the future, March hopes that the project will reach a wide audience and deliver the message that empathy should be extended to everyone despite their living situation.
“If somebody looks at the photographs, reads the quotations, watches the videos from the website, or sees our film, and makes that human connection through those media, then that person might be able to walk down the street and make eye contact instead of looking away, and that’s a good first step,” says March.
For more information, visit oralhistoriesproject.org or facebook.com/oralhistoriesprojectsc.