Mark Auslander, J. Hope Amason, Alexander McCrary, Brittany Anderson, Sarah Bair, Nicolas Crosby, Barbara Hammersburg
Photos taken by Lynn Bethke
The Museum of Culture and Environment at Central Washington University is currently hosting the traveling exhibition, “Righteous Dopefiend: Homelessness, Addiction, and Poverty in Urban America” from the Penn Museum, based on the work of anthropologists Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg. The show, developed out of Jeff and Philippe’s co-authored photo-ethnography Righteous Dopefiend, explores a community of homeless heroin injectors in San Francisco. In consultation with Jeff and Philippe, we have sought to contextualize the exhibition in Kittitas County, a largely rural community in central Washington state.
This essay, about the work we developed around the Righteous Dopefiend project, is written by two Anthropology faculty, four Museum Studies students, and a community member who is currently without a home.
As we prepared to host the exhibition, we partnered with local therapist Nan Doollitle and her student intern Maggie Bauremeister to hold expressive art workshops, bringing together homeless community members and students to create art on the theme of “homeplace.” What, we asked, does home, or the lack of home, mean to you?
Alex, who has been homeless for the past year, shared a fantastical drawing of a castle floating in the area above a beautiful mountainscape, tethered to earth only by a thin chain. A ladder from the castle almost, but not quite touches, the steps below, carved in stone.
Alex writes of this work:
“”In my homeplace the castle exists in a constant duality, in a place of two worlds–Between night and day, the celestial and the earthly, solitude and social connection (to name a few.) This illustration shows both my ideal living place in a literal sense and my current one in a metaphorical one. For the homeless, especially the urban ones, everyday life is caught between two different places in a surreal limbo-like state. At the edges of society the homeless experience the anxiety of not belonging while remaining an integral part of the social structure, living out a contradiction–One that will continue to exist until the importance of reintegrating the homeless into the infrastructure becomes a mainstream idea. In the meantime it is critical for each of the homeless to have their own castle retreat that they can call, in a sense, home.””
Sarah, a Museum Studies student who is legally blind, decided to fabricate an art work that could be discovered by visitors through the sense of touch. She created a little “tent city,” centered on a cardboard tent with flaps in front of it: through the flaps sighted and non-sighted visitors can reach to feel a tiny sleeping bag and pillow within. Items of clothing hang from an adjacent clothesline. Sarah also created a small sofa to go in front of the tent. Onto this, she playfully placed a little scorpion created by a low vision fellow student, which evoked the “sting” of fear associated with the homeless by passersby. After some thought she entitled the piece “All are Welcome.” Sarah explains, “This exhibition hits a very familiar chord for me, I was sick as a child and spent my childhood in foster care and in hospitals. That’s kind of like a version of homelessness. Nothing in a foster home is yours. Nothing in a hospital is yours.”
Students Saeed and Olaf, in turn, were inspired by a recent local newspaper article on a homeless man who had been arrested and placed in jail for creating a fire outdoors to keep warm on a cold day. They created two linked black boxes, evoking a homeless encampment and a jail house. The homeless camp space is covered with collage images signaling the open fire and police surveillance; all under a tattered American flag, reminding us of the nation’s promise, not always fulfilled, to care for its most vulnerable. (The flag also recalls Righteous Dopefiend’s opening banner image of a homeless veteran proudly waving an American flag above his tent.) The cells in the jailhouse are marked by narrow bars. They called the assemblage “B.A.R.S”—“Behind American’s Rugged System.” For far too many in America, they explained, prison has become their principal “home-place.”
All the students found that the art project open up significant lines of dialogue with our currently or formerly homeless community partners. Graduate student Nicolas Crosby writes,
“This exhibit was difficult for me to work on, initially, because of something that I wouldn’t have thought of before— I’m not homeless. Yet, through several conversations with homeless advocate Jack Frost, I realized that there are similarities between us, in terms of not feeling secure where we are, or feeling misplaced, as it were. I decided to create a castle representing me. It had aspects that symbolized my physical body, my mental compartmentalization— a coping mechanism born of growing up in two, separate, households— my interests, what I feel truly lies at the core of my being, my soul if you will. Finally, all of this structure that showed this sat upon a swiveling stand, representing life, which moves me regardless of my current state of self. When Jack saw the art piece, he explained he had come to the same conclusion that I had, that homes are what we carry with us. They aren’t just some random place that we go back to every night, or someplace that we go to hide from the elements in. Home is what we carry with us, what we are, who we are.”
The students arranged these art works in the Museum lobby, in front of a wall-based exhibition they had developed on homelessness and addiction in the county. Following the guidance of homeless advocates with whom we have been consulting, the students were careful to note that not all homeless persons suffer from substance abuse, and not all people suffering for substance abuse are homeless.
Barbara, a Museum intern, explains the interactions with activists that led to her and her fellow students to revise the installation, “Together with representatives from some of the local programs, I was able to create more accurate text panels and a story of how Ellensburg is affected by homelessness and addiction. One of the best things to happen for the development of the
local exhibit was Jack Frost. He had been homeless for many years and had even been in the same
geographic places shown in Righteous Dopefiend. Through his openness and allowing us to use his words, he told us that common misconceptions about choosing to be homeless or addicted to drugs
in a derogatory way was incorrect. It was a culmination of many factors of bad timing, abusive homes, not support network, and yes, sometimes people will gladly claim it is their choice to stay homeless or use narcotics. This as Jack Frost put it, was because people did not want to apologize for their behaviors or make excuses and above all they wanted to maintain their humanity.”
In consultation with Jack, Alex and other local homeless advocates, the students decided to create a space in the center of the gallery that evoked the urban homeless encampments described in Righteous Dopefiend, as well as the more rural homeless campsites in our immediate environs. At the same time, we were all committed to preserving the integrity of Jeff’s striking photographs of homeless persons as well as the carefully composed ethnographic texts co-authored by Jeff and Philippe.
We decided to cover the gallery’s central alcove with plastic tarps, cut out to allow visitors to encounter the photographs and interpretive text. In one corner, students placed a sleeping bag and other “camping’ items, poking out of plastic lean-to. In the other corner, they placed a banged up shopping cart, filled with the kinds of objects local members of the homeless community explained they often carried with them, ranging from water bottles to memorabilia of loved ones.
Brittany, another Museum intern, writes of her work on the installation:
“The struggle for a homeplace is essential to human dignity. In the book, “Righteous Dopefiend,” homeless heroin users create a version of home based on materials that have either been abandoned or stolen. A homeless woman known as “Tina” placed a red telephone in the middle of her camp, because to her that was an aspect of a home environment. In building and conceptualizing the material cultural aspects for the exhibit Righteous Dopefiend I wanted to emphasize how homeless people create “home” through material culture. People assume that homeless people live at bare minimum, which is in some ways true, but at the same time they surround themselves with other materials seen not only as necessary for survival but also for a sense of normalcy. My goal with the encampment in the midst of the exhibition was to evoke a vision of home under conditions of homelessness. I achieved this by setting common household objects in the encampment such as a candle, books, note pad, toothbrush, etc. For viewers it becomes essential that they realize that humans cannot survive emotionally on the bare minimum needed to survive, people need mental stimulation and possessions in order to feel dignity and sanity. “
In class, the students scripted an interpretive sign, to encourage visitors to reflect on what they might carry with them if they were homeless. In keeping with the exhibition’s emphasis on the creative agency of persons subjected to structural violence, the students’ wording foregrounded the material and symbolic functions of these material elements. The sign reads:
Not by bread alone
Maintaining the Whole Self
…for your physical survival?
…for pride, dignity and self worth?
…to stay sane and feel alive?
…to stay connected to others?
…to stay healthy in body and soul?
After some reflection, Brittany decided to write the words on cardboard and attach it to the front of the shopping cart.
Our hope has been that the core exhibition and our supplementary installations will help transform local perceptions of homelessness, addiction, and recovery. Nicolas writes, “Every time that I pass the wall, the art, and the main exhibition, I am brought into the minds of even more people, as they allow me to view them at their most vulnerable, sharing what they hold closest to themselves. I believe that this is what makes Righteous Dopefiend so powerful. It is clearly displaying what many people would rather walk past, and ignore. For many of our visitors, such as local school groups, and artists, and businesses around the town, this is a wake-up call, that something needs to change.”