Never easy and never well-funded, making a career out of working with those experiencing homelessness takes a rare combination of qualities. Compassion, sure, but also an unflagging belief that what you are doing can help people out of a bad situation. It also helps to have a lot of energy.
When Barbara Jensen took over the position of ArtStreet Program Coordinator (a program of Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless) at the end of March of this year, she brought to the job those qualities in abundance. We know living on the street is damaging to one’s health and we know art can heal in many ways. In short, that is the rationale behind the ArtStreet program. Weekly Alibi sat down with Jensen to talk about the approach she brings to job, the trauma of homelessness and role that ArtStreet has in providing healthcare for the homeless. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
Weekly Alibi: Tell me what you do.
Barbara Jensen: I’m the program coordinator at ArtStreet, which is an outreach and engagement program of Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless.
You came to this program recently from Colorado?
I did. I have a background doing case management and program management with folks who have been homeless. I’ve almost 25 years of experience up there. I started with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. I worked for a housing authority. I worked for a resource center similar to what we have here at Healthcare for the Homeless and in that role, I got to have lots of flexibility. As a third-generation artist I said, “I think if we brought some art into this it might be another useful way of engaging out clients.” So, I created a program in Northern Colorado with the help of the community college there. I was watching for an opening in New Mexico, some of my kids and my grandkids are in New Mexico, and here came ArtStreet. I said, “That’s the perfect spot for me.”
This isn’t a new program here. It started 24 years ago?
I came down to interview, I walked into the studio and I said, “There is staff and a budget? Oh yeah. I’m in.”
Is the program’s focus therapeutic, creative or transitional?
Yes. I have three tiers going at once and that allows the artists to have a lot of choice in the way they access the program. That is because this whole agency is about providing trauma-informed care. One of the aspects of trauma is that things are forced on you; you don’t get a choice. In here, you do. We just welcome people. They show up and we try to engage them to let them know that we see them and we know them. They can just come in, experiment with the materials, drink coffee and hang out with us. They can throw out their projects if they want to. It’s just a nice place to be comfortable.
Then we have a therapeutic level. We have an art therapist on staff offering a couple of actual art of therapy groups per week. We have our therapeutic arts professional on the team and she is always working one-on-one with people having some issues coming in and she’ll be like, “How would like to express that? We can work with certain kinds of materials or certain ways of making art that can help you get that out.”
The final level is that we have amazing, trained, skilled artists who happen to end up on the street or in a shelter. We want to meet them where they’re at, too. We have a mentorship program where they can work with us for a year partnering with area universities and galleries to get them information on—How to photograph their work. How to have an online presence. How to respond to calls for entry—so that they can be respected where they’re at and can reintegrate into the community.
What role do you see art having beyond that for the individual?
If you have a studio that is open to whole community, which this is—we have zero threshold, anyone can come—and you are bringing in people who happen to be homeless, it is by that definition a place of making socially engaged art. The personal is political. For them, their experience comes out in their art. You can’t keep your experience from coming through in your art-making. It taps into something deep in all of us. By having this open and available, the art-making is creating community just by the nature of making art. We want to make sure that is accessible to everyone, regardless of means.
How does the art program here fit into solving the larger problem of homelessness?
Homelessness is about disenfranchisement. You are no longer part of the community, or so it seems. When we are engaging with people, we are building a rapport, we are building trust, we are building relationships. ArtStreet is that first door they can walk through to start building relationships and finding community again. Our hope is that we can then connect them with our other services here so they can get the care that they need, they can start functioning better and healthier, and continue to make choices that let them reintegrate into the community.
Homelessness is deadly. People age really fast on the street. When you see people on the street, they are probably a lot younger than they appear. It’s really hard on a person to be out there because it’s not just the physical demands. We know heat is deadly. We know people are dehydrated. We know people are getting terrible sleep because they are having to watch their surroundings. It’s also this trauma strain. You never get to let down your guard. The erosive power of trauma on people’s lives absolutely destroys their health.
How can people help? What do you need?
I need people who want to volunteer to bring their expertise and educate our artists on how to access the arts world and information about art in general, arts movements and art styles. We’re always looking for volunteers to come in and work with us. People can volunteer as little or as much as works for them. We are looking for donations of high-quality materials, things that aren’t necessarily available to you if you are on the street. Quality papers, artist grade-colored pencils and things like that. That’s what we are looking for, primarily. Money’s always good.