‘I Don’t Want It To Be Forgotten That I’m Human’

What does it take to survive being homeless in New York City?

In the United States, the faces we recognize and the stories we hear are primarily those of the wealthy and famous. Seldom do people take the time to look at, listen to, and connect with those who are struggling financially—especially those who are homeless. But each of the 63,000 people facing homelessness in New York City has a story and a face. In this excerpt from the Face New York project, which pairs economically disadvantaged subjects with visual artists, women share their experiences of homelessness, past and present. The selections below represent work created this year and last.


 

BRE, 2017

“I was making it seem like I was this free-spirited gypsy living on the edge, when really I was terrified: terrified that I would grow up, become an adult, and fail. It seemed that everything responsible I tried to do ended up in failure. I tried to go to college. I failed. I’ve had several apartments. And then I made it to the point that everyone told me that I needed to make it to. I had a stable job in Chicago. I stabilized myself, because all my life I was told that’s what I was supposed to do. And I didn’t feel like I had accomplished anything. In homelessness, I found freedom. In some strange way, I needed to hit rock bottom to see my life for what it really was.”


Liam Alexander, photographic-based collage

  

PAMELA, 2017

“I grew up in the Bronx. I’ve lived in California, Connecticut, Florida ... New York is where I feel most like my true self. For a long time, I was in drug addiction. Going through this journey has taught me that I want to help people with my career. The job that I want, being a paramedic, I know that it’s going to be hard and dangerous, but it’s something that I’m drawn to because my life and the way that I’ve been living are so dangerous. I feel like, now, being in a position where I can help people in their danger is going to help me feel like I’m redeemed from all of the things that I went through. Peace and happiness, for me, are sitting outside and feeling the sun on my skin. Having a moment of silence.”


Michelle Lim, egg tempera

MEGHAN, 2018

“The homelessness in my youth was all tied to my mother's addiction. Then, as I got older, I went to live with my grandparents and my father. When I started coming out toward my junior and senior year, that was when I couldn't live with them anymore, because they were really strict Irish Catholics. They essentially told me I could not come back. So I ended up living with my friends and with my high-school English teacher. Then I got to college and had my first girlfriend ... In my apartment right now in Brooklyn, this is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere in my life, which is two full years. It’s exciting, but I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of the feeling of impermanence.”


Allie Wilkinson, mixed media on vellum

 

LESLIE, 2018

“Prior to being homeless, I worked for the attorney general. I had good jobs. I started working at 12 years old. But the drugs ... I ran into a guy with fast money and didn’t have to work. Everything was provided. So I was exposed to the drug life, and got caught up in the life I was exposed to. Crack is so powerful: you get that high that one time, and you never get it again. It was rough being out on the streets, because you never knew who you were going to bump into. For 11 years, I drank every day and smoked every day. I thought I was going to die on the streets. But God said no, and he gave me a second chance at life. I’ve been clean for 27 years. I got my children back. I went to school, got my first master’s. I'm working on my second master’s, to get my MSW. I’m currently working with homeless men. I have a population of 177 men, and I have the daunting task of making sure they have housing and are treated with dignity. Every now and then I have to give myself a refresher course. Because you can become numb to the pain, numb to the way that some people are living—and then I have to remind myself, Leslie you used to be a homeless woman, too. So if there was hope for you, there’s hope for them.


Satoshi Okada, oil on wood

 

ANITHA, 2017

“I lost my apartment because of high rent. At age 50, I had medical expenses. My cats had to go with someone else. I had to go to a shelter. I started looking for work. I found a good job and educated myself. I went to places that gave classes and went back into the workforce. But the jobs I would get would only be temporary—six months to eight months—and then I would end up having nothing again. And I had to rebuild and start over. I think that homelessness can affect anybody. Sometimes you can lose your job, you can lose your apartment, you can lose your family. And you can be so devastated that you don’t know what to do. You haven’t done anything wrong; you’re just trying to rebuild your life—trying to stand again.”


Allie Wilkinson, graphite on vellum

 

PRECIOUS, 2018

“Homelessness makes a lot of people look down on you. I don’t know if I’m the face of homelessness, but I am a face of homelessness. If you read the New York Times, you’ll know that people are a paycheck or two away from it. I'm a real person that this happened to. I’m not ashamed. I’m Precious—that’s who I am. And like the phoenix, I will rise again, just like I always do. I don’t want it to be forgotten that I’m human, and there’s something wonderful about being beautifully human. There are people in penthouse apartments who have no idea who their friends are—who are spiritually homeless. I’m not spiritually homeless. I know who I am. And that’s beautiful.”

Harry Hancock, mixed media on wood

 

Face New York, founded by Allie Wilkinson in 2015, is an art exhibition that challenges the anonymity of homelessness. This latest series of portraits, started last year at the Bowery Mission Women’s Center, highlights the faces and stories of homeless women.

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