Susan Russell, a vendor of this newspaper for seven years, experienced homelessness after a severe car crash injury put her out of work. Real Change gave Russell a sense of community when she felt she had none, and its Portrait Project helped her feel seen.
“It’s a beautiful project that gives stories to the faces of those who have felt so disconnected from the community,” Russell said. “I always pray that hearts will be changed when they view, take the truth of the information in on each person — that their hearts will have to open to let the love flow in for the people who are suffering.”
The Portraits for Change Exhibit launches Feb. 20 at 3 p.m. in the University of Washington Allen Library Atrium, where it will be displayed until March 12. It features 28 portraits of Real Change vendors, write-ups about their experiences of homelessness and a then-and-now photo series of Seattle.
The Allen library, in the center of campus, displays the marquee “You are welcome here.”
Professors Victoria Lawson and Sarah Elwood study the interaction between housed and unhoused people and its effect on the cultural narrative around homelessness. Last year, they asked Real Change to resurrect the Portrait exhibit that had a dozen exhibits in and around Seattle for years, including at City Hall.
Students from Lawson and Elwood’s “Citizen Acts to Challenge Poverty” course helped orchestrate the resurgence, focusing on cultural disruption around poverty and homelessness.
There’s a large population of people experiencing homelessness in the University District and on campus who go unacknowledged.
“Having these beautiful images and a very respectful launch event … in the heart of campus in a building built by Bill Gates and Paul Allen’s money for an enduring period of time says, ‘You are welcome here,’” Lawson said.
Lawson wanted to educate her students on these issues that surround them, the activism work being done and the agency they have to evoke positive change.
“There’s a lot of mainstream media that presents the shelter crisis in the city as sort of a new crisis when, in fact, folks had been living unsheltered in the city for decades — as long as the city’s been in existence. That is the nature of structural processes of inequality,” Elwood said.
The students put together the then-and-now photo series. They found historical photos of Seattle and then visited and photographed those places today.
“Some of them show shocking and disturbing consistency. There are still tents in locations where there were Hoovervilles almost 100 years ago,” Elwood said. “Others show equally disturbing transformations where there are now glitzy, multimillion-dollar recreational city stadiums.”
Elwood hopes this can rewrite stuck narratives of stigma, blame and shame around homelessness.
“I hope that they come away having learned some things that challenged those narratives — that they understand more complexity around homelessness and that they come away with lots more questions that they now want to follow up on,” Elwood said.
Elwood and Lawson are also co-conveners of The Relational Poverty Network, where they connect with people from all over the world to bring ideas together to treat the structural causes of poverty and homelessness.
They are conducting a survey to investigate if visual poverty politics move the needle of activism. They will ask viewers of the Portrait exhibit what they learned, what more they are curious about and what actions might they want to take.
One of the viewers from the first portrait show was so moved that he bought a portrait of vendor Addis Michael, someone he bought papers from regularly.
“It impacted my appearance on the street,” Michael said. “I have people come up and tell me they’ve seen the portrait and want to meet me or buy papers from me.”
This experience inspired Michael to keep his art going and start making portraits of others himself, which he has done now for four years.
Russell also uses art for activism through her nonprofit, Love Wins Love.
“It’s an art outreach to bring people who are housed and people who are unhoused together to have a platform to paint together and to discuss similarities instead of differences,” Russell said.
Through this community, she asked 40 focus groups two key questions: “What do you need to thrive?” and “What do you value?” Community, unity and food — all things that feed the body and the soul — were consistent across all answers.
Unfortunately, with the current U.S. system in place, only 40 percent of the homeless population is sheltered, resulting in an increased mortality rate, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Nine of the 40 original vendors portrayed are known to have died since the portraits began in 2012.
As they set up the exhibit, the UW stewards will place a flower on each portrait of a deceased vendor to memorialize them.
“On one hand, you don’t want this to be a show all about death, because it’s a show about life and vitality and complexity and all of the beauty of these humans,” Lawson said. “It’s about re-humanizing in some part. … On the other hand, we don’t want to not talk about it, because it is already not talked about. So, we’re trying to find that balance.”
Russell knew the deceased vendors and teared up as she reflected on them.
“I miss every single one of my brothers and sisters in this project and beyond,” Russell said. “We always hope for each other that we can finally get to where everyone else is.”
Vendor Ed McClain’s passing sparked thousands of people remembering him and responding to his death. He had made a difference to many people. He was warm and kind and sold Real Change at the U-District Safeway since the beginning of the newspaper in 1994.
Russell, who found permanent housing after 10 years, has a positive message: “I just want people to know that it is possible. Your dreams are possible. They might be hard, but they’re possible.”