When you walk into the small dark room off the narrow hallway of the Social Justice Center on Willy Street, the first thing you see is the last thing you want to look at. Two people huddled in the corner with shabby blankets who immediately greet you with “oh great, more people.”
The couple, played by Michael Winter and Amy Soderman, shivered in a huddle and encourage one another to make it through the cold night. Only allowing one person at a time to enter, the display puts the viewer face to face with an overlooked and underserved population with nowhere to run away from the problem.
They were an interactive component for the opening night of the “Homeless not Hopeless” exhibit, hosted by 608 artist collective, which illustrates the hyper-visibility of those struggling with homelessness.
Ironically the small dark room was lined with different model houses and in the corner there sat “The Zero Game,” a homemade board game where players rolled the dice and landed on squares that read different circumstances like “are you an addict” or “are you LGBTQ.”
“A lot of artists don’t want to touch the topic for fear of misrepresenting the subject,” said Char Devos, the artist behind most of the exhibits visual art components.
Neither Devos or Sariah Daine, the exhibit’s curator, talked to many people who frequented the Social Justice Center and had dealt with homelessness in order to become more sensitized on the subject. They also found shocking statistics about the homeless epidemic in Madison where over 3,500 people become homeless each year, according to Porchlight.
Both Daine and Devos have never been homeless themselves.
“I know nothing about being homeless,” said Daine. “I know about a family losing everything, but never a home.”
There was, however, a couple struggling with homelessness present: a man named a Michael and his partner, a disabled veteran, according to Michael.
“We’re not really hungry because we do have a lot of services here in Madison that help with that, but scared, hurting, bullied, ignored, and curious to the fact how you can just have everything taken away from you,” said Michael, referring to terms on a word collage that was also a part of the exhibit. “You don’t believe that this can really happen to you and that’s the hardest part.”
Although the interactive exhibit itself did well on addressing how often silenced and overlooked homeless people are, the sharing session provided a more authentic example.
The talk back component seemed to be open for everyone to share except for Michael’s partner who was told by Daine that she could come in, but could not talk.
When she did begin to speak, admittedly, going on tangents about her experiences with being homeless, she was often cut off and at one point asked to leave if she did not be quiet, because there was “a time and a place” for what she was saying. Eventually, Michael told her to stop talking because it was Daine’s time, not theirs. Instead, Daine told a story of how she first developed her own biases and assumptions about homelessness.
The event ended with Daine thanking people for “having the guts to speak [their] mind” and “being willing to look at homelessness.”
In many ways, the exhibit taught an important lesson on intentionality and humanity. Many do not directly support homelessness, and some even do work to end the epidemic, but still support and participate in the silencing of the people who are most affected.
Though the interactive component of the exhibit was only for opening night, the visual art will remain on display until mid-April.