Home Now is a compelling mix of art and activism that invites viewers to make a human-to-human connection with their unhoused neighbors.
It was time for the outdoor viewing for Home Now, an innovative photography exhibit on display at the Impact Hub in Pioneer Square. Rachelle Mee-Chapman had prepared a tent with coffee and donuts to share, and volunteers were already deep into serving the long line of people that wound around the corner of Second Avenue and South Washington Street.
Despite the late winter chill and quickly melting snow, a festive spirit pervaded the street. People gathered around steamy cups of coffee, chatting and admiring the photographs mounted on Impact Hub’s glass walls. A few of the people profiled in the exhibit posed near their photographs and stories–the proud celebrities of the hour. It was a rare moment of celebration on a street more commonly known for struggle.
However, the person who should have been at the center of attention, Home Now photographer Timothy Aguero, was nowhere to be found.
That’s because Aguero was off at a doctor’s appointment. Fred, one of the Pioneer Square homesteaders, had needed extra help and Aguero had stepped in to provide it.
“The photography is secondary,” Aguero said while handing coffee and warm clothes alongside Mee-Chapman the previous week.
What comes first for both of them is the people. Over the past six months, they have made a lot of connections with the diverse group of men and women who live in Pioneer Square’s shelters and streets.
There’s Theresa who always has a radiant smile on her face, despite months of sleeping under a bridge, and Kevin, who was raised in a tough crowd, but is trying hard to avoid fighting these days. Recently an older man whacked Kevin in the face with his cane. The attack was unprovoked and frightening, but against the urging of his cousins, Kevin chose to forgo revenge. “I don’t want to cause more trouble,” said Kevin, who is trying to create a new path of nonviolence for himself.
Fred, a former Boeing employee, has been a big cause for concern for Mee-Chapman and Aguero recently. Clean and sober, Fred found himself out on the street after memory loss resulting from epilepsy-related brain surgery made it impossible for him to continue working. It has also made it a challenge for him to successfully navigate the complicated world of healthcare and social services. Even though Fred tries to write everything down in his notebook, the appointments and paperwork have proven too much to keep up with.
“Services are available,” Mee-Chapman said. “But people out here face a lot of obstacles to accessing those services. Every person’s situation is complicated and unique.”
To help people better access those services, Mee-Chapman envisions creating a Neighborhood Lab where people can bring their laptops and sit down together with people who are searching for jobs, housing, and other much needed supports. Accomplishing this goal will take both funding and the right location–a place where people from all walks of life will gather and feel comfortable.
Bridging the Indoor/Outdoor Divide
As an exhibit, Home Now seeks to bridge the indoor/outdoor divide that dominates the lives of the people it profiles.
The photographs are shown both outside and inside of the Impact Hub’s ground floor conference room. Viewing the photographs outside means stepping into a space occupied by homeless encampments. It is a not so gentle reminder of the harsh conditions the people profiled in the photographs live in everyday.
From the inside, it is also impossible to forgot the tents that lay just beyond the windows.
As the site of both the Seattle Gospel Mission and Chief Seattle Club, this stretch of Second Avenue has long been a gathering place for people who are unhoused. As the homelessness crisis has escalated in recent years, it has also become a hub for sidewalk encampments.
For the non-homesteaders who venture through it, the impulse might be to walk quickly. Avoid eye contact. Shut yourself off from the turbulence swirling around you.
That is exactly the kind of behavior Mee-Chapman and Aguero are challenging people to rethink.
Homelessness, Mee-Chapman said, is more a symptom than a disease. The true problem stems from people not looking out for each other. “What is missing is the human-to-human connection,” she said.
Through coffee, photographs, and stories, she and Aguero are seeking to restore those broken social bonds. “Just giving a cup of coffee and saying hello means a lot,” Aguero said.
So far it has taken six months for Mee-Chapman and Aguero to assemble these photographs and stories. During this time they have earned the trust of their unhoused neighbors. They have also observed the changing of the seasons and the challenges that presents to homesteaders.
Colder months have led to a greater need for warm clothes to distribute. Employees from Impact Hub have stepped in to meet this need, providing donations of coats and other cold weather wear.
As a certified B-corp, Impact Hub has felt the need to engage with the unhoused community right at its doors. People visiting from all over the world use the co-working space and come with questions about the tents outside and the people who live in them. Home Now, with its vivid photographs and stories, offers some answers.
Under the guidance of mentors like Anita Freeman of Real Change and Share Wheel, Mee-Chapman and Aguero have learned a lot about the importance of agency and meeting people where they are. They have also learned how to make sure the photographic gaze is correct and to tell the stories that people want to tell about themselves.
In Search of Good Samaritans
Home Now is the result of an interesting mix of partnerships. Funded in part by the Alliance for Pioneer Square, the exhibit has also partnered with the Samaritan app to match prospective donors with people in need. Working under the motto of “Walk with, not By,” the app alerts people to when a beacon holder is somewhere near.
Beacon holders are people who are in need of help. They share their stories on the app and register to be matched with donations and services that meet strategic and critical needs, such as bus fare or a cellphone plan. Financial donations from samaritans help beacon holders have those specific needs met by partnering businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Beacon holders also meet monthly with a counselor who helps them advance toward achieving their goals. Samaritan strives to address homelessness through tackling both “financial and relational poverty.” Meetings with counselors help individuals to feel supported and connected, a way of feeling they have a “home,” even if they are currently unhoused.
Some of the people profiled in Home Now are beacon holders, including Kevin, whose photograph and story were shared earlier in the article. Mee-Chapman and Aguero are careful to set up beacons for people who are ready and able to benefit from the services Samaritan offers.
Setting up neighbors with a beacon is another way for Mee-Chapman and Aguero to create connections, something they intend to continue doing even after the Home Now exhibit comes to an end.
“There is no ‘done,'” Aguero said. “It’s not going away. So I’ll keep on taking people’s photographs and telling their stories.”