Artists and Activists in new report draw attention to federal
policy and its link to contemporary mass homelessness.
A report released in November 2006 uses artwork created by four San Francisco
Bay Area political artists to draw attention to the ongoing effects
of drastic cutbacks to federal affordable housing programs. The report, Without
Housing: Decades of Federal Housing Cutbacks, Massive Homelessness
and Policy Failures, documents the root cause of homelessness – the
gutting of the federal housing budget – through art and words.
The report is being distributed throughout the U.S. with the goal of
changing the debate on homelessness from its current focus (the personal
defects of “chronically homeless” people) to a focus on
federal housing policy. Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) – a
San Francisco based organization that brings together grass roots organizations
around the western United States – prepared the report in partnership
with several national social-justice based organizations.
WRAP founder Paul Boden and artist Art Hazelwood together formed the
idea of working with artists to bring life to the graphs and charts.
The challenge for the artists was to translate the message of the graphic
information into a piece of art that communicated both the facts and
the emotional impact of the data. The numbers are shocking but it takes
some study to get through them. Paul Boden has been taking his pie charts
around the country and speaking to people for years. He wanted something
that could carry the message more strongly. As he said, “no one
is going to put a pie chart on their wall.”
The artists and WRAP members worked in collaboration to develop the images
presented in Without Housing. While this may seem to be a natural
fit, putting together artists and activists can be a difficult task.
Even artists who regularly create political work can have difficulty
communicating what the activists have been struggling (often for years)
to get across. And activists can be cautious about artists who drop in
from nowhere to suddenly portray the soul of the movement. It takes a
lot of listening on both sides.
In the past activists generally came to print artists to help with their
published materials because artists had the means to make reproducible
materials, but now technology allows activists to create their own images
leaving political artists more isolated; often producing their own messages
but not tied into any particular group. This gives the artist freedom,
but no direction, while the activists have control over message, but
with no artistic input. It was part of the intention of this collaboration
to try to reinvigorate this historically powerful connection between
artists and activists.
The artists involved were — Art Hazelwood, who organized the collaboration
and is a printmaker; Jos Sances, an indefatigable printmaker, sculptor,
muralist, whose range of achievements include having co-founded Mission
Graphica and Alliance Graphics; Claude Moller, San Francisco street art
activist; and Ed Gould, long time art contributor to the Street Sheet,
San Francisco’s street paper.
Each print incorporated the elements of the graph into its imagery. This
was a challenge to be solved differently by each of the artists. Jos
Sances used a purely digital collage of elements to tell the story of
the divergence of federal funding away from affordable housing and towards
mortgage subsidies over a 25-year period. An eye appears in the historical
moment that is labeled “Housing For All”, when federal housing
policy didn’t favor the wealthiest Americans’ write-offs
for multiple homes, a period now long past.
Claude Moller used a photo-based screen print, superimposing text over
a photo of an EKG machine to point out the critical condition of affordable
housing. The funding of HUD (Housing and Urban Development) trends steeply
downward while a flat line in red represents homeless programs.
Ed Gould created a reduction linoleum cut print then added text and printed
the final form as a digital print. His image uses stacks of ever diminishing
houses in a rural landscape to portray the loss of nearly all federal
funding for rural affordable housing programs.
Art Hazelwood also used a linoleum cut as the original media but added
text using screen print to create the final image. His image shows the
loss of funding dating from 1983 when Ronald Reagan launched a massive
assault on affordable housing programs. As a result 1983 saw the opening
of homeless shelters nationwide, represented in the artwork by increasingly
larger figures in silhouette against an ever more desolate background.
A new era of modern homelessness unseen since the Great Depression began
in 1983. It has not subsided and every attempt since then by local, state
and federal government to address the issue has dealt with the individual
person as the cause of the problem and failed to address the systemic
problem. Yes, drug, alcohol and mental and physical illness are causes
of homelessness but with the US Department of Education identifying 600,000
homeless students just in our public schools, and an Urban Institute
study suggesting that as many as 3.5 million people, including 1.35 million
children, are likely to experience homelessness in a given year, there
is more to the story than individual hardship… there is a systemic
These artists and activists have worked separately over the years to
bring attention to these issues. But they hope in this new collaboration
to bring this message to society through the force of well-documented
facts together with descriptive and emotional artwork. Over the Winter
2006/07, these images will be featured in several U.S. street newspapers
with a combined circulation of 200,000; they are also being publicized
through over 200 events, congressional visits, and conferences. The 33-page
report includes the artwork in book size format with a facing page of
the graph data and accompanying bullet points describing the data. An
offset poster size version of all the artwork has also been printed.
The posters will be distributed to homeless shelters, drug rehab clinics
and medical clinics, where they can be viewed by those who are most impacted:
homeless people and front-line services workers. The original prints
are being exhibited in non-profit centers and galleries to raise awareness
as well as to raise money for further artist collaborations.
Political art is not only the creation of art about political events
but also the attempt to engage the wider society by other means. Stencil
art, street posters, images for protests, images for political movements,
are all part of these other means. This project of teaming artists and
activists together is a powerful tool for social change because it formulates
a clear message sent out to a wide spectrum of society.