When Allison Stocks was 13 and stuck at home during a 12-day run of snow days, she read a newspaper story about a homeless family moving into permanent housing. An accompanying photograph showed the family in an apartment with bare walls. To her, it didn’t look homey.
“The place looked kind of uninviting,” she recalled. “I realized that although there weren’t a lot of things I was capable of doing to help families like this one, I could help make their apartments more inviting.”
Allison, who is now a 15-year-old sophomore at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Va., started talking to artists and homeless shelters and in February 2016 she founded a nonprofit, Home Is Where The Art Is, to start connecting them. The organization has procured donations of hundreds of pieces of art, frames, and mattes, and has provided original artwork to over 50 people in the Washington area – plus one in North Carolina – who are making the transition from homeless shelters into permanent housing.
While her parents have helped spread the word, her mother sits on her board and her father helps with matting and framing, the driving force for the program has been Allison herself. She solicited work from art teachers at CentroNia, a D.C. bilingual school, and Washington Lee High School in Arlington. She convinced members of the Arlington Arts Alliance to donate unsold work; and neighbors, friends, and local frame stores began donating material and art. The family guestroom house became a repository for paintings, drawings, cut paper art and framing supplies, and she works with three Northern Virginia homeless shelters to match them with recipients. Some art is available in shelters for residents to choose from, and more is on the organization’s Web page.
The art has helped humanize the transition at New Hope Housing, a Fairfax County nonprofit that has a 20-unit permanent residence called Mondloch Place for people coming out of homelessness. Jan Sacharko, director of development there, said it is a nice complement to the typical welcome basket that includes new sheets, towels and cleaning supplies.
But for the newly homeless, art can serve a deeper purpose than a bottle of bleach.
“The first few days coming out of homelessness can be crucial,” Sacharko said. “If they feel like this is a place they want to stay, they will, and if they don’t, they can go away and not come back. An empty apartment can be terrifying. I think if you are sitting in your place those first couple of days getting used to it, blank walls can be uninspiring, but having something beautiful can help.”
Residents at New Hope didn’t need convincing. Last spring, when the shelter put out a selection of donated work, they crowded around to choose their favorites. Now, around 20 have art hanging in their efficiency apartments.
“One resident who’d been homeless for several years, she chose one that had a bird in it,” Sacharko said. “She said, ‘birds mean freedom to me.’ A lot of people, once they have a place to live, that’s freedom, it means freedom from troubles.”
Irina, a 59-year-old formerly homeless woman who now lives in Mondloch Place, chose two red square canvases that came together as a set. “This is abstract, and I like abstract — it reminds me of Salvador Dali,” she said. Irina, who grew up in Moscow and had decorated her apartment with a few items such as a glittery reindeer and a collage she had made from magazine pages. But the art stood out.
“It’s definitely changed the way I feel about my apartment,” said Irina, who declined to give her surname due to concerns about stigma. “It makes it more homey, it makes it more attractive … I think it decorates my life.”
Christina Vandercook, 33, of Arlington, was homeless with her two sons before moving into a new apartment through Doorways for Women and Families, an Arlington organization that provides shelter and counseling and also helps place people in longterm housing. To her, hanging a painting in her own apartment was like opening a door to a new part of her life. “I felt like I finally did it, and I overcame so much,” she said.
In a society where many people with homes don’t own original art, it might not be the first thing on a homeless person’s mind. “When you come to us and you are homeless, you might have a garbage bag full of things that you have, and it’s not going to be art,” said Heather O’Malley, director of development and communications at Doorways. “Especially if they’re coming out of a domestic violence situation and they don’t have time to pack; they often show up at 3 o’clock in the morning with nothing.”
Perfection can also seem like an unrealistic goal for for people coming out of homelessness, but Allison has strict standards. She doesn’t use photographs or prints, because they are not one-of-a-kind. And while she accepts all donations, she curates the items, offering residents only pieces that she deems high enough quality and in good enough shape to hang in someone’s house (others are passed on to Goodwill). She gravitates toward colorful work, and nature scenes seem to be popular with the recipients.
When arranging to work with the shelters, Allison insisted that residents be able to select their own art. “A lot of time our clients haven’t had the luxury of choice, so to be able to decide for themselves is empowering,” O’Malley said.
It is also important because art is so subjective, Allison said. “I think some of the paintings are inspiring to them because they kind of convey a sense of where they want to go,” she said. One man, for example, selected a painting of a sailboat, saying, “This is something that I would want some day.”
For Danielle Costa, 32, a single mother of two in Arlington who is also raising her nephew, a tree was key. When she got divorced and became homeless in 2015, she was unable to keep beloved posters of trees that had hung in her house. When she moved into a new apartment through Doorways, it was enough just to have a place to sleep. “Even though I’ve lived there for two years; it still feels like a temporary place,” she said.
But after she chose a painting of a tree and placed it atop a bookcase, her feelings about that area of the apartment changed. “I love it so much,” she said. “It’s a little taste of what the future will look like, when I have a real home.”