To ordinary motorists on their morning commute, the homeless people gathered on sidewalks and in alleyways must look idle.
But for those who spend their days and nights living on the streets, life can be a constant search for food and shelter. Any spare time they have during the day is spent at places like public libraries, where they can be indoors for free.
Recently, one library employee decided that even the homeless need a little constructive downtime.
“They just need a chance to come in and do something for a couple of hours that isn’t survival-based,” said Rebecca Forth, founder of a new program she calls “Seen and Heard.”
Starting last month, the central branch of the Sonoma County Library in downtown Santa Rosa began offering the homeless a weekly art workshop on Monday afternoons, when the library is closed to the general public.
“I like it here,” said Greg von Kreiger, 42, homeless since September, on a recent Monday. “I like the staff and the people who come here, because they let you be true to what you feel, and express that. I want to be part of this, because I don’t have anything to be part of.”
Forth, who works as an assistant to the director at the downtown branch of the Sonoma County Library, said she got the idea for the “Seen and Heard” program while jogging with a friend along Santa Rosa creek. Spotting an artistic arrangement of rocks beside the trail, Forth’s friend called it “homeless art.”
Concerned that the homeless remain separate and often invisible in our midst, Forth found $5,000 in state and federal grant money for her program and then approached homeless people on the streets to invite them inside.
Ken Manners, 61, who has been moving from one Sonoma County homeless shelter to another for the past 20 months, sat at an art table, mounting bits of cut-up calendars on a sheet of blank, white poster paper.
“I just started this project,” Manners said. “I’ve realized this is what my life is like. There are pieces, but no pattern. I am going to fill in the spaces and see what it looks like.”
During the weekly sessions, drop-in participants also are encouraged to record videos telling their life stories. The stories are striking. Manners is dealing with the death of his mother, and his own back and head injuries from an unrelated car accident. And von Kreiger has been in and out of prison five times over the past 20 years, mostly for robbery and resisting arrest.
“I don’t make excuses,” von Kreiger said. “I don’t want handouts. I want chances.”
Isabel Sell, 57, has been homeless off and on since childhood, after her father died and her mother left. She dreams of buying land to serve as a haven for herself and others in similar circumstances.
“I want to start a farm for the homeless,” she said, as she drew pastel farm scenes. Sell has been coming to the “Seen and Heard” sessions since the program started. “I like it a lot. It relaxes me.”
Once a live-in care-giver for an elderly client, Pam Yoho, 53, found herself homeless after the death of her patient, but recently got into a low-income housing program and continues to be a regular at the library’s Monday sessions.