Hobos To Street People: Artists’ Responses To Homelessness from the New Deal to the Present

by Carol Harvey on August 12, 2009

This is the final week and your last chance to see a great FREE ART EXHIBITION, “Hobos To Street People: Artists Responses to Homelessness From The New Deal to the Present,” at the California Historical Society, 678 Mission @ 3rd Stret, (Wed/Thurs/Fri/Sat 12:30-4:30 p.m). On August 15, the show will begin a three year tour throughout the State. Everyone is invited to the closing party Thursday, August 13, 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Take a look at the text of this article and click on thumbnail videos of conversations with the Artists and reviews by Homeless People, Terry, Travis, and Moses.

Terry “Tresa” Chandler, 47, stood in the vaulted art gallery. Her tiny 4 foot, 11 inch figure was dwarfed by the huge, colorful painting of a young Hispanic boy walking to school past a rotten tomato splashed against graffiti scrawled on a wall, shouting, ‘Homeless Go Home.” He is flanked by four adults protecting him as he walks to a school for homeless children. The work was crafted by artist, Nili Yosha, after Norman Rockwell ‘s illustration of guards escorting a small black girl into a newly integrated school at Little Rock, Arkansas. Terry tilted her head, looking around at me with a shy, sardonic smile. “When people say this,” she observed, “They are only doing it to be mean.”

“The best thing about this show is that it makes people think.” Her voice echoed slightly, “I live it. It’s so real. All this is so true.”

“It’s good that homeless people get to see [this show] too because then we can tell you if it’s real or not.”

Over several days from April to August 2009, I invited Terry and four other formerly or presently unhoused San Francisco citizens to The California Historical Society at 678 Mission Street to view a collection of paintings, prints, photographs, and mixed media pieces by more than 40 artists represented in an exhibition entitled “Hobos to Street People: Artists’ Responses to Homelessness from the New Deal to the Present.” The show began February 19 and continues to August 15, 2009. On two Thursdays, August 6 from 6 to 8 p.m., an artists’ panel discussion will take place at CHS, and the following Thursday, August 13, a closing party, also from 6 to 8 p.m.

Curator Art Hazelwood reported that reactions to the show have been positive. Visitors’ occasional negative responses reflect a “demonization” of homelessness and homeless people by the Press and social stereotyping. “People want to turn homeless people into a kind of Other that they can dismiss. It’s easier to dismiss people if you categorize them and accuse them of being morally lax.”

Agreed Terry, her brown bangs swinging adamantly,“The newspaper tells people things that aren’t true, and people believe it.”

This false stereotype “is not something new. One answer to almost any complaint,“ Hazelwood stated, “is to point to identical patterns of condemnation throughout our history.” The cheap fix of Gavin Newsom’s Care Not Cash program and Rudy Guiliani’s attempt to sweep New York homeless off the street like trash are paralleled by late 19th century social workers who concluded poor people were lazy, defective degenerates who needed rehabilitation by learning the value of work, so sent them to workhouses at forced labor “breaking rocks.”

Doug Minkler is a protest satirist who, by selling his art on Telegraph (in Berkeley), has a close connection with life on the street. Homeless people like Moses and other visitors were drawn by its color and dynamism to Minkler’s ‘Who Drives The Cycle of Poverty.’

Did Hazelwood choose this piece for the show because it shows the Perpetual Poverty Cycle, with studded tires gunned toward us by a vicious boar-like pig. It offers reasons that, in Jesus’ words, “The poor are always with us.” For its very existence, our capitalist republic seems to require, at varying levels of intensity, poverty’s perpetual presence, cycling endlessly round and round. Out of its exhaust pour collateral damage as poisonous gas — welfare cuts, layoffs, unemployment, homelessness.

“Who drives this cycle?” Minkler asks. “Welfare Queens? Illegal Aliens? Bleeding heart liberals? Capitalist Pigs? Crash the Cycle of Poverty!” or it will drive on and on, carrying the hog to hell.

Hazelwood, is himself a San Francisco artist whose etching-style linocuts have enlivened the pages of San Francisco’s “Street Sheet” and the East Bay’s “Street Spirit” print papers since 1994.

A year and a half before the economy plunged and the banking crisis caused home foreclosures, mass evictions, and a surge in homelessness, Hazelwood planned a commemoration of the New Deal’s 75th anniversary. During talks with Paul Boden of the Western Regional Advocacy Project and Berkeley professor, Dr. Gray Brechin, New Deal expert, about parallels between the Depression era and today, it struck him that a show comparing homelessness in the ’30s with contemporary homelessness was a brilliant way to make clear to people, “We’ve been through this before. We can get through it again. If we try, we can do something to (solve) this problem.”
Curator and artist, Art Hazelwood introduces the show at:

Lisa Erikson, Director of Education and Public Programs introduces the show:

The show’s sections focus on four major aspects of homelessness.

DAILY REALITIES of life on the road or on the street without housing.

DISPLACEMENT, ROOTLESSNESS AND VULNERABILITY – a sense of disconnectedness endemic to American culture, housed or homeless.
URBAN VS RURAL – Country homelessness, often unseen and unrecognized.

STRUGGLE AND HOPE – “that we can change things.”


The show contrasts the two eras and challenges our narrow range of homeless stereotypes. Homeless people are many and varied. People live in cars, in the country, hold down jobs, work recycling, live in, or refuse, dangerous shelters for the street.
In Christine Hanlon’s contemporary oil painting, ‘Third Street Corridor’ and Isac Friedlander’s ‘Gold digger,’ (1932) people struggle, working hard for little.

Christine Hanlon talks about “Third Street Corridor”

In ‘Corridor,’ the shopping cart is conversely a overfull garbage collection device and the Horn of Plenty, the ironic symbol of rampant consumerism, while in ‘Gold digger,’ trash becomes pure gold to the ragged “gold digger.” In neither, across the decades, has anything changed.

Art Hazelwood on the shopping cart as both a symbol of Plenty and Want:

Most don’t consider tented people working in fields as homeless. Depression artist, Dorothea Lange, photographed a young mother with her two babies, one holding a nippled Coke bottle, seated in a Ford near Tulelake, California (1939). Nearby hangs David Bacon’s photo of an Mexican mother and child camped on a hillside outside in Del Mar, California. “They are still the same,” said Terry. “The only difference is nowadays they would take your kids from you.”

Terry on homeless mothers losing children:

Terry was brought up housed in Seattle. She knew nothing of homelessness until she lost her home and The State gave her three children to relatives. Terry said when she refused to rat on a friend, fraudulent police pressure and intense harassment forced her to leave town with her husband. She has not seen her children for eight years. She found personal strength in street survival.

The homeless woman seated among feet in Christine Hanlon’s “Faux Street Revisited” depressed her. Being “invisible” to passersby on the street is hard. She humanizes herself by drawing people into conversation. She smiles,“I get smart with them sometimes. I say, ‘Close your eyes. I’m not here. If I’m so invisible asking for help, I guess I’m that invisible when I tell you what I think of you.’”

Faux Street Revisited reminds Moses of the invisibility of homeless people:

Artist, Christine Hanlon on “Faux Street Revisited:”


Art Hazelwood on Displacement and Rootlessness and on “G.I. Homecoming” by artist, Sandow Birk, who satirizes Norman Rockwell’s“Homecoming G.I.”:

My invitees to this show are like most poor, fragilely housed or unhoused San Franciscans. They lose their homes for various reasons — renter or home owner evictions, loss of paychecks and work, or illness. Some couch-surf with friends while saving up rent. Terry Chandler sleeps in daylight, walking nights for safety. David Suttles panhandles for monthly hotel rent for his wife and himself. Travis was displaced from a hotel during hospitalization for mugging but is temporarily housed again.
Hazelwood believes the inevitable vulnerability of displacement and rootlessness is a U.S. social norm. Our emphasis on money and ”advancement,” at the expense of “the general welfare,” forces all of us — rich, middle class, or poor — to tear ourselves, or be torn, away from our safety nets.

Giacomo Patri’s illustrated novel, “White Collar,” (1938) tells of a middle class working stiff displaced by transcendent, enlightening events. The stock market crashes. With repeated firings, Patri’s character, Hazelwood explains, converts from “sneering disinterest in revolutionary speakers and blue collar organizers he passes on the street” to being blacklisted unionizing white collar workers. He and his wife end up homeless.

Catholicism and the ’60s and ’70s backlash against war and capitalism seem to have sensitized Jos Sances to the twin cruelties of social privilege and poverty. Sances’ symbolism thrusts the viewer into the reality and heart of homelessness. A Boston-born Irish-Sicilian, Sances matured out of the Church’s mythology of Christ as Deity, while preserving in his art the fragile beauty of Jesus’ humanity. Homeless people warm to Sances image of Jesus’ sacred heart simultaneously surrounding, then evicting, a mother, father, and two diapered babies from its loving embrace. One homeless interviewee, his parents and twin siblings suffered such an eviction.

Jos Sances painting, “Holiday Home 2008” depicts the invisibility of the unhoused at Christmas. Moses described the pain people feel “outside” at holiday time:


Post-Ronald Reagan, Hazelwood observed, we have seen the total destruction of the social safety net and a progressive downward slide into complete defunding of federal money for American cities’ public housing. Hazelwood’s ‘Spirit of Abandon’ and Claude Moller’s ‘Housing Crisis: Condition Critical,’ render pictorially accessible the harsh statistics that clarify loss of urban affordable housing.

Most people think of homelessness as urban. Ed Gould’s,“America’s Forgotten Homeless People,” charts the defunding of rural affordable housing which disappeared last year. Terry worries about people in the country. “They couldn’t survive like we can here (in the cities) because there is nothing for them out there.”


Hazelwood compared today’s poverty imagery with Depression era art which refused to divest the poor of nobility or hope for the future.

He believes Hope was stronger in Depression artists than in artists today. Rockwell Kent’s skillful lithograph, ‘And Now Where?’ etches a couple as in stone or steel, statue-like in love, pride, and hope. Richard Correll’s ‘Drought’ displays the hopefulness of a proud, noble farm woman, “strong, independent and able to deal with life’s difficulties.”

Contemporary imagery mirrors the hopeless struggle of modern homelessness. JaneInVain Winkelman compares her colorful “New Drop Dead Welfare Center” to Auschwitz ovens. Her ‘Greedy Landlords I Can’t Pay Your Rent,’ seems a stress response to living perpetually on the edge. In Kiki Smith’s drawing, ‘Home,’ sleeping feet stick out of a cardboard box. This image reminded traveling guitarist/carpenter, Travis 28, of his gratitude at being protected by a lowly cardboard box during subzero Manhattan winter nights.

Travis sleeping in a coffin box:

After his father lost their carpentry business and his mother her nursing job, their Detroit home was foreclosed. Travis left so he wouldn’t burden them. He said the noble couple in ‘And Now Where?’ reminded him that, despite their love, his parents could not verbalize mutual pain.

Norman Rockwell is several times satirized in this show. His ‘Freedom from Want’ is a homey thanksgiving dinner. In Rockwell’s ‘Freedom from Fear’ — a couple putting their son to bed as the husband holds a paper with a World War II headline — suggests, “We’re safe here in America.” By contrast, in Hazelwood’s series ‘Four Freedoms,’ ‘Freedom from Fear’ displays a homeless man’s sign saying, ‘Beaten, robbed, help please.’ ‘Freedom of Assembly’ is the right to stand in a food line outside a church like Glide. Hazelwood’s satirizes Rockwell’s evocation of FDR’s vision of a hopeful future and the failed dreams of 1950s America.

The words, “Everyone has a right” march across Robert Terrell’s Market street photographs brutally portraying an elderly homeless woman and an AIDS sufferer accompanied by a quote from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the U.S. is a signatory, guaranteeing housing for all. The bitter reality mocks the Rockwell-like promise, but suggests what we can do about it.

Jesus Barraza’s 2001 San Francisco Print Collective poster bears the words: ‘How many Homeless people does it take to start a revolution?’ Across it is written, ‘There are 15,000 homeless people in San Francisco. Is that enough?” A black silhouetted figure holding a gun poses before an orange shopping cart. “When that came out,” Hazelwood observed, “it was vilified and mocked by ‘The Chronicle.’”

“Poor people’s rebellions are not an unheard of thing.” As the Depression began, dispossessed World War I Vets, the “Bonus Marchers,” were denied benefits. General MacArthur led the last cavalry charge against their protest on the Washington Mall. I recalled that ragtag Parisians did storm the French Bastille, and in 1968 Dr. King did lead a Poor People’s march on that same mall. “It happens,” murmured David Suttles, as he slid past the poster toward Eric Drooker’s ‘Sleeping Giant,’ slumped hugely over a street light, unaware of its powerful size.

Travis on Eric Drooker’s “The Sleeping Giant:”

Hazelwood reaffirmed the show’s purpose. If we look at the history here, we can say, “We’ve been through this before, and we can rise to the occasion again. The government did something (about the Depression) in the past. The government could do something (about our current economic crisis) again. We don’t have to live with this terrible situation we have now. We can get through it.”

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