Santa Rosa library offering art workshops to homeless

The central branch of the Sonoma County Library has begun offering art workshops to the homeless on a weekly basis.|

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.

“I like it that they have a lot of different art supplies here, and the fact that the staff and volunteers here care about our stories of how we became homeless and what our lives are like now,” Yoho said.

“Seen and Heard” is funded until late February, with an additional $1,500 art supply budget funded by the local chapter of Bread for the Journey, an international nonprofit. The sessions run from 1:30 to 4 p.m. on Mondays in the Forum Room off the library’s main entrance.

Forth hopes to raise money to extend the program, and plans to stage an exhibition of both the art done by homeless participants and the video histories they’ve recorded.

“Everybody who has come here has been open, ready to talk and very articulate,” Forth said. “It’s amazing. It’s not what we expected.”

Professional art therapist Shellee Davis of Cotati, who serves as an art instructor during the “Seen and Heard” sessions, said the program’s homeless participants need no prompting to express themselves.

“They just dive in,” Davis said. “I think the program is working well. Being welcome somewhere feels really different to them. They can just hang out and be themselves.”

For more information: 545-0831,

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or

Dan Taylor

Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat

Do you take fun seriously? I know I do. Tell me what you want to know about arts and entertainment in the North Bay to make the best use of your leisure time and money. As a longtime local arts journalist, I have learned where to look and who to ask.

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