journey2home is a year-long, socially engaged public art project initiated by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program in collaboration with youth enrolled in our Art Education program and in other activities sponsored by local community organizations. The Project was conceived by lead artists Ernel Martinez and Shira Walinsky; project manager Shari Hersh; Dr. Carolyn Cannuscio and her team at the University of Pennsylvania; journalist and radio producer Elizabeth Perez-Luna and WHYY. People’s Emergency Center, The Attic and Covenant House, organizations with considerable experience in working with homeless youth, served as advisers. Lead artists Nema Etebar, Michael O’Bryan and Jared Wood joined the team in the course of the project. The project provides an interdisciplinary framework, based in artistic co-production, to illuminate the stories of young people impacted by housing insecurity and to generate dialogue among diverse stakeholders.
journey2home expands on the success of our previous project, A Place to Call Home, completed in 2011, that combined photo-based qualitative research methodologies with public art-making to help youth share their experiences with housing insecurity and homelessness. According to Philadelphia Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness, a 2010 report released by the Children’s Work Group, “On any given night in Philadelphia, more than 800 children sleep in Emergency Housing. Countless other children and youth are sleeping in temporary locations, in part because Emergency Housing facilities are full.” The problem has recently grown: between FY08 and FY09, there was a 12% increase in homelessness for youth under the age of four and a 16% increase for youth ages 18 to 24.
A Place to Call Home demonstrated the unique effectiveness of art-making to build awareness of the problem and to prompt the public to reframe their perspective on the issue. Through the project, 50 teenagers transformed an empty row home in Mantua into a multi-arts installation that attracted hundreds of visitors, contributed to the physical transformation of the block surrounding the row home, created a housing resource guide for their peers, participated in a “sound mural” produced by Elizabeth Perez-Luna, and gave shape to a journal article and white paper designed to generate policy change. During summer 2013, Dr. Carolyn Cannuscio led an evaluation of the project, the findings of which were largely positive and contributed to the design of this new project, journey2home.
journey2home took root in August 2013 in a vacant storefront along Lancaster Avenue. In this safe, neutral space, more than 50 youth participants have met for after-school workshops with instructors Michael Kohler and Derrick Taylor. Participants have worked with lead artists Etebar, Martinez, Walinsky, Wood, and O’Bryan to explore the multiple dimensions of housing insecurity, collaborating to develop a monthly series of installations in the storefront, each meant to communicate an aspect of home, housing insecurity, and homelessness. The storefront art installations were visible to passers-by on Lancaster Avenue and open to the public during the Avenue’s monthly 2nd Fridays and during quarterly public events.
Simultaneously, and integrated with the artistic processes, Dr. Carolyn Cannuscio and Elisabeth Perez-Luna collaborated to communicate students’ stories, images, and data to a far broader audience. Dr. Cannuscio uses a radical research method she calls photo elicitation to collect data with a subset of the youth. Participants took photographs of their neighborhoods, and then used their imagery to guide interviews about their perceptions of the challenges of housing insecurity. This setup gives participants a self-directed platform for sharing their experiences, and resulted in, among other things, Life Stories, a photo project in collaboration with artist Nema Etebar. The data collected this way will also be used to generate content for scholarly articles. Youth were encouraged to use their photographs and interview transcripts in the development of their artwork.
Meanwhile, Perez-Luna recorded participants, crafting two sound murals to share with WHYY’s audiences. She has also led workshops on interview techniques, empowering youth to ask questions, direct conversations, and shape dialogue. This is useful to them as they engage with community members and other stakeholders as part of the project, and as they navigate the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead of them in life. As Philadelphia residents, policy-makers, academics, and artists learned about the project through its many channels, the storefront and nearby mobile unit provided a place to learn and join the conversation. At our monthly events, we invited readers and listeners to move beyond the role of passive audience and to become a part of the process. Awareness is a good starting point, but in the long term we seek to contribute substantively to policy change, improved resources, and increased community support for those struggling with this often invisible issue.
A final, key dimension to the inter-disciplinary framework isthe presence of social services. We have learned from other socially-engaged projects targeting vulnerable populations that the presence of social workers during programming is a key way to generate immediate improvements in the lives of our participants. It is a well-documented phenomenon that available health and social resources are often underutilized due to stigma, confusing bureaucracy around access, and suspicion directed toward government intervention. Through the neutral and liberating process of creating public art, Mural Arts is often very effective at reaching those who tend to fall between the cracks, and helps them connect to and utilize services.
Workshops and programming in the storefront concluded in October 2014 with the dedication of Home Safe. Following this, we brought artwork, participants, and artists to the Housing Alliance of PA’s Homes Within Reach conference in Harrisburg on November 18th, 2014. Feature events included a conversation with formerly homeless youth led by radio host Scott LaMar and a screening of filmmaker Jon Kaufman’s journey2home documentary.