ActivismArts and CultureSan Francisco

Rehumanizing Homelessness, One Story at a Time

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Guest post by Arjanna van der Plas

What did you experience the last time you encountered a homeless person? I often ask this question to my friends, and to be fair, it’s not their favorite conversation topic. Most of them report experiencing a mix of sadness, anger, guilt and fear. Rather than seeing a fellow citizen, the encounter reminds them of one of the most pressing issues of San Francisco, that seems too big to solve.

When I moved to San Francisco about a year ago, I felt exactly the same. Coming from ‘socialist’ Amsterdam, I struggled to deal with the social inequality in the city. The easy way out was to ignore the issue and pretend I didn’t see the homeless. But I also felt a deep curiosity to get to know the people that literally lived right outside the window of my yuppie apartment.

So I jumped right in and joined Stories Behind The Fog (SBTF), a multimedia project that aims to challenge the single-minded view of homelessness, one story at a time. At its core, SBTF is the West Coast version of Humans of New York, focused on people that are or have been homeless. We share their beautiful, raw, and often mind-blowing stories on Medium, and will publish them in a book later this year. It is our belief that sharing personal stories can lead to changing the current mindset toward the homeless, and eventually to policy change.

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Cherri spent 23 years of her life in a Californian prison. She’s now trying to find a stable place to live.

SBTF’s muse is a charismatic panhandler named Moses. Coincidentally, my colleague Fran Guijarro cast Moses ten years ago as the central character in a short narrative film. Since that first encounter, SBTF’s team has witnessed how Moses slowly reclaimed his life, his family and his past as a gifted musician. His extraordinary story, soon to be released in the form of a feature-length documentary, inspired us to reveal the stories of 100 more people affected by homelessness.

Working with Moses showed us that there is an important place for artists in the dialogue around homelessness that is often held by advocates, politicians and the media. Not only writers and photographers, but also visual artists and musicians have joined us on our quest.

The people I’ve personally interviewed for SBTF in the past few months have had a huge impact on me. Not just because they made me understand what it means to be homeless and what we could do about the situation, but also because of their incredible wisdom that often remains hidden.

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Image of Cherri by Jonath Mathew

One of the strongest people I got to know through SBTF is Cherri. She spent 23 years of her life in a Californian prison. Whereas prison breaks many people’s spirit, Cherri decided that she would come out stronger. While she is now struggling to find a place to live and a stable job, she is also working on setting up her own foundation to help young women at risk.

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Image of Brianna by Jonath Mathew

The story of 24 year old Briana reminded me not let any situation be an excuse not to prosper. She had a very rough childhood, and only learned what it means to be part of a family when she was admitted to the Life Learning Academy. Now she wants to give back, and studies at UCSF to open her own daycare center one day.

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James’ photography in collaboration with Tender Souls.

And  lastly, the charismatic James showed me the importance of art in seemingly hopeless situations. Making art helped him when he struggled with addiction, homelessness and time in jail. His incredible graphic novels are now for sale in North Beach.

These are just three snapshots of the rich stories the people on the streets of our cities have to share. We are currently raising funds to turn the stories into a coffee table book that will be presented at the launch of Moses’ documentary. All proceeds from the book will be directed to SBTF’s partners. If you are a writer, photographer, musician or other type of artist, and would like to join our mission, please contact us!

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