The Faces of Homelessness

Ventura County, California. When I describe my hometown, breezily summarizing it as a southern California suburb, I have a pretty good idea of what people imagine. Traffic, beaches, large single-family homes, year-around sun. The assumptions are accurate, at least to a point. While I, a middle-class white kid who got good grades, took ballet lessons, and went off to a private school in a different state for college, fit neatly into the stereotypical suburban slot, I’ve long been pretty aware of being the exception, not the rule. Ventura County is also the kind of place where various immigration reforms could make or break my schoolmate’s lives, where gang violence was common, and where friends’ economic statuses varied wildly. I generally like to think that even as a kid, and an incredibly lucky one at that, I was pretty aware of the inequalities that wracked my community.

But I did have one blind spot, one that I suspect is shared by many of the people who grew up around me: I never thought that people I saw in the grocery store, or who sat in their cars at the stoplight next to mine, or who passed me on the sidewalk might be homeless. Though homelessness often goes unseen, it can be particularly invisible in a place like Ventura County, where most travel happens by car, there are few spaces where the homeless can congregate in public, and camping year-around (often out of sight on deserted beaches or in dry river bottoms) is a possibility. That’s something that happens in cities, where people walk around, is a thought that I am embarrassed to say I’ve probably had. Nevermind that as of 2011, 1,872 people in Ventura County are homeless on any given day. [1]

Lift Up Your Voice, an advocacy program founded and run by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura, is doing what it can to

At one of many “cleanups” of the Santa Clara river bottom in Ventura (this one took place in February, 2011), a city official tries to persuade a homeless man to leave his camp. http://www.vcstar.com/news/2011/mar/01/ventura-clears-out-illegal-homeless-camps-in/
At one of many “cleanups” of the Santa Clara river bottom in Ventura (this one took place in February, 2011), a city official tries to persuade a homeless man to leave his camp. http://www.vcstar.com/news/2011/mar/01/ventura-clears-out-illegal-homeless-camps-in/

change these kinds of assumptions. [2] It all started with an exhibit. In 2009, local photographer Linda Kennon took studio photographs of twelve volunteers living in homelessness (in the interest of full disclosure, Linda is a family friend, and my parents played a major role in this project). With the help of the UUCV, she then created a traveling exhibit that paired these thoughtful portraits with quotes from their informal oral histories. The varied portraits contained within the exhibit seek to emphasize the diversity of the homeless experience in Ventura and “[address] the fact that 80% of the homeless are hidden and trying appear that their lives are normal by going to work or to school, but struggling daily to find restrooms, facilities to stay clean and presentable, and searching for a safe and warm place to sleep.” [3]

When the simple exhibit was first staged in Ventura’s E.P. Foster Library, it quickly became not only an educational tool, but also a source of strength for the homeless community. “I had no idea that hour after hour, day after day, month after month, people visiting the E.P. Foster Library would examine the photographs of local homeless individuals and read their stories with great interest,” noted librarian Mary Stewart. “I expected to achieve a little community education with the display. What I didn’t realize is that many of the homeless people who use our library would read these life stories and see them as inspiration for their own lives.” [4] Since then, the exhibit has been shown at events and community buildings all over Ventura County, including the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, the Oxnard Community College Library, the Ojai Public Library, the Conejo Valley Unitarian Church, Ventura City Hall, Temple Beth Torah, and the 4th of July Street Fair. [5]

The exhibit has acted as a catalyst for ongoing advocacy. Along with continuing to show the exhibit, those involved with Lift Up Your Voice have lobbied city and county governments for more affordable housing opportunities and better shelters, worked with the homeless who camp on public land and are periodically displaced by the police and government officials, and continued to educate the public about the need to end homelessness.

“We are not content to manage the crisis, or to maintain the effort, or to accommodate the response. We were called to one goal, one objective, one mission – to abolish homelessness. Now is the time to forward the advocacy, fashion the strategy, and to fulfill that mission.”

-Philip Mangano, Executive Director United States Interagency Council on Homelessness [6]

[1] Ventura County Homelessness and Housing Coalition, “County of Ventura 2011 Homeless Count.” Accessed 8 May, 2013. http://www.vchhc.org/images/PDFs/2011_VenturaSurvey.pdf

[2] Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura, “Life Up Your Voice: About.” Accessed 8 May, 2013. http://www.uuventura.org/lift-up-your-voice.html

[3] Lift Up Your Voice, “The Faces of Homelessness Photo Exhibition.” Accessed 8 May, 2013. https://sites.google.com/site/uuventuraluyv/Home/the-lift-up-your-voice-photo-project

[4] Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura, “Action Opportunities: The Photo Project.” Accessed 8 May, 2013. http://www.uuventura.org/lift-up-your-voice/action-opportunities/photo-project.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura, “Lift Up Your Voice: Action Opportunities.” Accessed 8 May, 2013. http://www.uuventura.org/lift-up-your-voice/action-opportunities.html

Photo credit: Linda Kennon, 2009.

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