The Homeless in Public History and the Arts

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Homeless encampment on Soledad St., Salinas Chinatown. Photo by Jean Vengua.

I like to think of my volunteer efforts with the Salinas Chinatown Cultural Center & Museum project as my real work. But my everyday job is that of “contract editorial quality assurance specialist.” I have also worked as a content writer, a college instructor, and tutor. “Contract” means that I have no assurance of long-term employment. I’m called a “seasonal worker” in the current parlance, a term that holds a lot of irony for me, since my father was once a migrating seasonal worker, only his work was in agricultural fields up and down the West Coast, and in the fisheries of Alaska. Somehow, between savings, freelance work, and hounding of contractors for more long-term work, I manage to keep a roof over my head. Still, for anyone in my situation, the spectre of homelessness haunts.

I guess that’s also why I like to think of the future Salinas Chinatown Cultural Center and Museum as an inclusive project not limited to a history of previous residents. There is still a living, breathing community here. Those who are currently living on Soledad Street are people who sleep in tents, on the street, or in temporary/unstable housing situations; and because Chinatown (specifically Dorothy’s Place, CSUMB Learning Center, Christian mission and homeless action groups) provides services, friends, learning opportunities (and yes, certain business opportunities that are dangerous and unhealthy), the neighborhood is their community and a “home” of sorts. They compose the current population of Chinatown; the “old-time” residents are the property owners–although they no longer live there.

So, I was thinking about all this today, and it occurred to me that the homeless don’t exist only in a physical and economic limbo; they also exist in a kind of historical limbo, as if they have no history and no future–only a timeless, wandering present, although they are demographically tracked. The acquisition of personal property is so important in our society, that if you lose it, you seem to lose your “history” and your “future” too, which is to say, in society’s terms, use lose identity. There are now many studies in ethnic history, and in the representation of minorities in literature, and in media. But there seem to be few studies of the history and representation of the homeless. There have been homeless people in the Americas for centuries. How have our perspectives about them changed over the years? How has legislation about the homeless changed, historically? How have they been portrayed in the arts–in literature and painting, and what does that tell us about our society? More importantly, how have the homeless portrayed themselves? They have not all been without voice; they have published small periodicals, have written stories, created art.

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Graffiti found on an interior wall of the Republic Cafe. Photo by Jean Vengua.

Our partners at CSUMB have begun to do oral histories of the people who camp, travel through, and use the services in Chinatown. Recently they held a successful event in the Republic Cafe, specifically for the people they interviewed, showing videos of the oral histories, sparking some dialogue. One homeless man expressed his appreciation for his interview, because now he would be “remembered.” Yet, he and others do hold memories that are valuable. At a development retreat, while walking around the Republic Cafe site, I had a chance to talk to some of the people who live in the encampment on Soledad St. Some of them are locals, whose families once lived in Chinatown, or had businesses there. They know the history of the area, can tell us who lived where, and what businesses existed there. Such stories might also become part of our archive, part of the story of Salinas Chinatown, in addition to the stories of the Chinese, Japanese, and Filipina/os who lived there earlier.

Relating to those stories–I’m wondering what kinds of public history, art, or literary exhibits/events treating the issue of homelessness can be curated? Most of the art events I see about the homeless are photography events, turning the lens on the homeless and focusing on individuals and their stories. That’s important in helping us to see them as individuals, rather than as stereotypically one of the masses; but somehow it still seems to set up the same “us looking at them” paradigm. While action is imperative to find housing, food, and medical care—the larger, historical view, and the perspectives of the homeless themselves, are also needed to help us all understand the phenomenon.

This post is part of the thread: Salinas Chinatown Museum Project – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.