This week, nonprofit art space The Hill Street Country Club opened an exhibition of portrait photography of unsheltered individuals plus onsite programming, panels and events dedicated to homelessness.
“Stories from the Street” features work by photographer Jordan Elijah Verdin, and is curated by Oscarin Ortega. The portraits are of unsheltered individuals, each living within a one-mile radius of HSCC in Oceanside.
Listen to this story by Tania Thorne.
Homelessness in Oceanside is at the center of a debate in recent weeks. On April 7, the Oceanside City Council declared camping in public spaces illegal, and increased spending towards finding alternate housing — namely vouchers for motel rooms. As of Tuesday, the Oceanside Police Department moved the people from a nearby encampment to a motel.
One of the portraits featured is Kathleena Alphonse, known to many as Mama Kat. “This picture is about 6 months ago, and now I’m no longer there. Now I’m in a better place where I can shower when I want to and sleep in a bed,” Alphonse said.
Alphonse said the project gives people who are experiencing homelessness a platform to tell their story. “They think that we’re all drug addicts and criminals and we’re not. We’re average tax payers just like you. We almost got on our feet then COVID came.”
‘A Photo Is An Exchange’
In the HSCC gallery, 30 portraits are displayed alongside printed stories from each individual. The overall effect is striking — not just that the gallery is filled with the portraits of its most immediate neighbors, but also that the works are captivating. Each face, whether joy-filled as many of them are, or more pensive, is an example of a subject trusting and feeling safe with their photographer.
“For me a portrait and a photo is an exchange. And it’s between the subject and the person taking the photo. And many times, a lot of these photos that you see, I never take their photo the first time I meet them so it would be like I build and establish a relationship,” Verdin said.
“A good photo and a good portrait is about connecting with the person, not necessarily like the settings or the lighting or the background. It’s more about the human connection.”
Verdin is also the founder of Humanity Showers, a North County-based initiative that brings mobile shower units directly to neighborhoods that most need services, and often links up with other organizations, like Lived Experiences and the mobile laundry trailer.
After several years of taking portraits and talking with people experiencing homelessness, he launched Humanity Showers in 2018, which operates several mobile showers in the region.
“As I was doing these interviews, I would ask people, ‘What is the most difficult aspect of being on the streets?’ The first, most common thing was lack of access to hygiene. The second most common response was the lack of being seen, the lack of being heard, the lack of being acknowledged as a human being.”
Trauma And Stigma
Ortega, the curator, is also executive director of Lived Experiences, an Oceanside nonprofit committed to supporting at-risk youth and addressing the underlying traumas, whether physical or emotional.
“This is a mental health conversation. From my point of view, we’re trying to break a stigma here, and it’s all about perspectives.”
‘Stories from the Street’ Events
Gallery viewings daily from noon to 8 p.m. Information and directions here.
Thursday, Apr. 15 at 5 p.m: Meet local Carlsbad grassroots leaders
Friday, Apr. 16 at 5 p.m: Meet and greet Jordan and Oscarin
Saturday, Apr. 17at 4 p.m: Open mic and spoken word, 6 p.m: Live music performances
Sunday. Apr. 18 at 4 p.m: Expert panel
Monday, Apr. 19 at 5 p.m: Fundraiser to support mobile laundromat program
Tuesday, Apr. 20: Closing expo with thank you letters
In addition to sharing photography, Ortega and Verdin are using this week-long expo to offer services to homeless individuals in the area, fundraise for the mobile laundry project and gather together organizations, activists and neighbors to share best practices, awareness and ideas.
Ortega said that often where homelessness programs and services fall short is in the follow-through. “We know that it takes up to 21 days to create a long term memory in someone’s brain. It takes 60 days to break a habit and takes 90 days to master a new habit,” Ortega said.
“We need people to really meet people and be friends in people’s lives. We need more mentors in our community. We need more love,” said Ortega. “So that’s what we’re missing out here.”
Storytelling And Peacebuilding
Love and friendship are ideas Ortega keeps coming back to as he discusses his approach to addressing homelessness.
“It’s important to understand that people have a story behind them,” Ortega said. “History is based on stories. This country is based on stories, the world is based on stories. It’s the number one way we heal. It’s how we share information. It’s how we communicate with people. It’s how we create relationships. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”
Verdin has been photographing unsheltered locals for years, and uses his camera to dignify and share the stories of the people he meets. His aim is to photograph and interview 500 people.
“In 2014 I started taking portraits on the streets, and I wanted to do it in part to challenge people’s implicit bias, which is what we harbor against people. When you see someone, you think something, whether it’s good or bad. A lot of times there’s a lot of false ideas and stereotypes about people on the street, and I wanted to challenge those ideas,” Verdin said.
Verdin studied negotiation, conflict resolution and peacebuilding, and came to photography and storytelling as a newspaper photojournalist. He said this project is a way of building peace between the housed and the unhoused.
HSCC’s vision is that art — and their work — should connect an artist’s lived experiences with the community and the world.
“I’m grateful that artists are taking on more roles in the social movement,” said Dinah Poellnitz, HSCC cofounder. “My childhood babysitter, Nikki Ferbree, has a portrait in the exhibition. This show is personal, communal and universal for me,” Poellnitz said.
And for Verdin, connecting unhoused persons with these stories and art is critical, though they are not always welcome in art spaces.
“The people that can benefit most from these types of events and these types of experiences have the least access to it. The least opportunity to engage with it,” Verdin said. “So for me it’s really important not only to have their photos but to have them here in person. Let them be a part of the narratives, a part of the events, versus me sharing what I think and what I see.”
The exhibition runs through Tuesday, April 20, and the gallery is open from noon to 8 p.m. each day.
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