Using murals to battle youth homelessness

Mark Browning , top photo, a Mural Corps student, works on "Blueprint," designed by Shira Walinsky. In bottom photo, Ernel Martinez, a lead artist in "A Place to Call Home,"works with a resident in the 3800 block of Melon Street.
Mark Browning , top photo, a Mural Corps student, works on "Blueprint," designed by Shira Walinsky. In bottom photo, Ernel Martinez, a lead artist in "A Place to Call Home,"works with a resident in the 3800 block of Melon Street. (STEVE WINIK / For the Mural Arts Program)
Posted: June 13, 2011

When you watch children draw, you quickly learn what is most important to them. They draw loving abstractions of their parents, grandparents, siblings, and family pets. They draw trees and the sun. And they always draw their home.

When Pedro Ortiz was young, one of the first things he drew for his mother was a house - a rectangle with a triangular roof on top. Ever since his mother's death, Pedro, now 21, has struggled with the meaning of home, having lived on couches and park benches, until he found shelter and support at Covenant House, a haven for homeless youth.

In Philadelphia, about a thousand children and young adults sleep in shelters every night. Even more hop from couch to couch, with no place to call home. They are part of an invisible homeless population - children and young adults who sleep on a cousin's sofa or sneak into a friend's bedroom at night.

When he left home as a teenager, Pedro moved into an apartment, only to get evicted and thrown out onto the street. "I felt like I was a burden to everybody," he says. "I didn't have any hope." Pedro eventually learned about Covenant House, where he was able to find shelter and support.

Pedro is one of the many young people in Philadelphia who have struggled with homelessness, and whose jobs, education, and health can be compromised as a result. Places such as Covenant House, People's Emergency Center, and Opportunities-PA can get them back on track, but these resources are often underfunded.

This is where art comes in. After a teacher noticed an elaborate design Pedro had drawn on the table, he was referred to us, where he joined our Mural Corps art-education program.

Now, shedding light on this hidden homeless population is the heart of a new project we have undertaken. On Friday, WHYY and the Mural Arts Program dedicated a collaborative public-art project, A Place to Call Home, which highlights housing insecurity for young people. The project is sponsored by the city's Department of Human Services, Hummingbird Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Surdna Foundation.

Forty-eight Mural Corps students, including Pedro, defined the meaning of home through photography, interviews, and art. Houses spanning the 3800 block of Melon Street were painted, along with a vacant house, which was taken over and turned into an "art house." Young people like Pedro were interviewed to better understand how housing insecurity affects them and their ambitions. Pedro was also hired as an assistant artist to help the professional muralists.

"It made me feel important to be interviewed," said Pedro, whose story will be highlighted in the work. He believes the project will help people understand youth homelessness. As Pedro says, "You could put words on paper, and probably only half the people would read it, but you put art on a wall and everyone looks at it."

The Mural Arts Program believes that art can ignite change and that it can transform public spaces and individual lives. As the beautiful artwork and stories of these 48 young people express, home is not just a rectangular building with a triangular roof. It can mean family, safety, friends, privacy, or "the people who look after you." Art makes the invisible visible.


Chat live with Jane Golden Monday at 1 p.m. at www.philly.com.


Contact Jane Golden via www.muralarts.org.

 

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