Like so many New Yorkers, I pass homeless people on the streets every day and wonder about them. Who are they? Where are their families? What are their stories? In 2008, I got to know some of New York’s homeless while working as the community service coordinator for the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. Spending a lot of time with the residents of the synagogue’s men’s shelter, I learned about the Faith-Based Emergency Shelter Network, approximately 100 churches and synagogues that house volunteer- run homeless shelters in the city. I was inspired to tell the stories of the shelters’ guests through my art.
In order to embody the stories of homeless individuals artistically, I decided to create a free-standing structure reminiscent of a sukkah, a temporary hut constructed for use during the week-long festival of Sukkot. The inside walls tell the stories of the individuals from the shelters and the outside walls are covered with artwork created by children in family shelters. By hanging these stories on the walls of the sukkah, the homeless men, women and children become the exalted guests – the biblical ushpizin whom we traditionally invite into our sukkot every night of the holiday.
The piece was guided by two Jewish texts. Sefer Hasidim (a 12th-century legal text) teaches that “if a community lacks a place of worship and a shelter for the poor, it is first obligated to build a shelter for the poor.” And in Vayikra Rabbah 34:1 (commentaries on the book of Leviticus), Rabbi Yonah says: “The verse does not say ‘Happy is the one who gives to a poor person.” Rather it says: ‘Happy is the one who considers a poor person.’ Therefore, you must consider how best to benefit such a person.”
I was struck in the first quote by the directive to build a home for the poor before a house of worship and wanted to create a piece that would resemble a permanent structure. All of the children’s art was created on grey fabric pieced together to look like stones when seen from a distance. On closer inspection, however, you see its temporary nature with its fabric walls and sheer roof, reminding us that although we have built shelters for our poor, we do not have a permanent solution to the problem of homelessness.
I was constantly reminded of the vast differences among the people living side-byside in the shelters. Each individual’s unique story brought him or her to the shelter and each person had different needs. Since the nine inside panels tell nine distinct stories, the viewer is asked to consider them as individuals as Rabbi Yonah instructs, paying attention to one at a time.
I was deeply affected by the story of a young woman named Heather who had been a successful copy editor living on the Upper East Side. Heather had returned to school for an additional degree but when she graduated in 2008, there were no jobs and no way for her to continue paying her rent.
The left side of the piece illustrates Heather’s successful life. The city skyline is a backdrop for the silhouettes that show her at work at the computer, partying with friends and shopping. The night sky in the background shimmers.
In the next section, the skyscrapers are replaced by stacks of books as she delves into her studies. Once she receives her graduation cap and diploma, the golden backdrop ends abruptly leaving only darkness. Buried in this chaos is a door with an exit sign, a door that is always available if she chooses to return to her parents’ home in Georgia.
Steven, another person whose story appears in the piece, grew up on the streets of New Jersey. His mother was unable to care for him and his three sisters so they were raised by his grandmother. He dropped out of school in sixth grade and by the age of 13 he was getting high with friends, which led to a life of petty crime and hard drugs.
He was sent to a training school for boys but ended up with the same crowd. In and out of jail, he realized at the age of 42 that this was not what he wanted from life.
“Drugs will destroy your body – mentally and physically,” he said. “My goal is to become a decent human being for myself and the Lord, to love myself and not hurt myself.” To accomplish this, he is in a 12- step program as well as programs for behavior modification and relapse prevention. He is learning a trade and writing poetry that reflects this new outlook on life.
This piece shows his journey from the darkness of drugs to the light of religion, poetry and his profession as a plumber. The background is painted with the words from two of his poems. The first poem, which speaks about his belief in God and the need to do the right thing, is a divider between his two lives. The second, a poem he wrote for his mother about believing in yourself, pours out of an open journal toward the light of his new life.
It is my hope that those viewing the piece will be inspired to take the time to consider the homeless in their cities as the individuals they are. To learn more about the piece or to see the exhibition schedule, visit my website: www.sewingstories.com. A book which contains all of the art and stories in the piece is available on Amazon.com.