Self-Esteem Local Motive

A coalition of agencies has thrown out the economics books and fights homelessness on new terms.

Imagine a world conditioned to believe that the source of homelessness was artlessness and low self-esteem instead of joblessness and laziness. Imagine treating the issues of mental disabilities with painting, jewelry and gardening workshops, or economic instability with I Ching or nutritional counseling.

The Union for Art and Healing Local No. 8 is attempting just such an experiment at 119 E. Toole Ave. The program is housed in a building made available by the City of Tucson in support of a joint effort between various local organizations and social service agencies to better the relationship between the mainstream and homeless communities.

Ted O'Neill, job development coordinator for Cope Behavioral Services and co-director at the Union, is enthusiastic about the possibilities created by a coalition of organizations like Feral Press, Third Hand Art, BICAS (Bicycle Inter-Community Action and Salvage), La Frontera and the agencies involved in Rise, Inc. (COPE, Primavera, Our Town, Compass Health).

"It's great we can work together," O'Neill says. "They're sort of the grass-roots entity and we're more of the organized, formal social service entity, but that's the way community is--it's very diverse, and it works better when everyone is united together around a common goal."

O'Neill looks forward to implementing some of the changes that the members of Rise have been developing since the closing of the COPE-sponsored feeding program last October.

"[In previous years] we were contracted for economic development, but we ended up putting a lot of our funds into sandwiches that really weren't helping to improve people's situations in life, and now we're just trying to take the next step. When we started this we saw this was going to be a gradual evolution away from the old style of social services to a more empowering, personally responsible approach."

Pat Benchik, president of the Rise board of directors, is equally spirited about the changes that have been made in the program on Toole. "The main thing happening [at the Union] is that whereas the city used to sponsor free meals and handouts here, since the Rise partnership has formed the focus is on a hand up; participants are no longer recipients, they are a resource."

Volunteers at the Union promote the philosophy that client and caregiver should not be segregated, and that those who are differently abled should have the same opportunities as economically secure classes. Specifically, this will include more opportunities for exposure to art and alternative healing methods.

Kim Young, founder of BICAS and acting director of the Union, hopes that the community will see the importance of addressing homelessness in terms of emotional and creative self-sufficiency rather than economics.

"I think the holistic approach is the missing link in terms of whatever this thing called recovery means," says Young. "It's critical because self-esteem is so connected with creativity and the ability to express yourself--and it's a really modern idea that art is a specialty that is separate from life."

Pasquelina Azzarello, local arts educator and co-founder of Third Hand Art, agrees:

"I think it's a really unfortunate misconception that art is seen as this entirely separate entity that is a detour off the path to success, because when someone is feeling good about who they are, it makes everything else more attainable."

While the traditional educational curriculum stresses function and product as the means to economic security, Union members promote methods of building self-esteem as the main road to self-sufficiency. Azzarello also credits community involvement as another important factor in creating new resources for the homeless and working class.

"[At the Union] you are surrounded by people who are demonstrating nutrition, who are demonstrating art, who are demonstrating what they are feeling--and it creates this strong, invisible and silent system that is formed in the process of people just coming together. When you bring people together a whole new personality evolves ... it's a powerful thing to acknowledge that you really are part of something. That support is a significant reminder to someone that they belong."

It may be difficult to persuade the general public that the missing link between homelessness and "productivity" is self-esteem, but Kim Young insists that the evidence is already in place.

"Programs that function and succeed are those that work in a healing and creative way," Young says. "That's what works with BICAS, Third Hand Art, the Tucson Arts Brigade, etc. These programs are holistic in that the community participates in the design process and in the work, and the emphasis is on the cooperative, not on being an entity that gets money and provides a service. Whether you're a client or a service provider, we are trying to share in the work, so it's not just the job of the case managers."

Allen Reilley, director of BICAS, believes that the homeless do not really want handouts; rather, they want to earn, learn, grow and participate in their community.

"We have to provide not just teaching and training but an opportunity for someone, a space where they can build skills and values that they feel the world needs. By whatever your standards of success, at some point the richest or the hardest-working person was either given an opportunity or they saw an opportunity. The evolution of learning ... in an experiential setting ... is amplified and the benefits can be seen immediately."

Many established social service agencies have long embraced the notion that the community must divine new methods of dealing with homelessness. La Frontera and RAPP (Readily Accessible People Program), programs geared toward the mentally disabled homeless, hired artists from the Union last fall to develop an arts apprenticeship with their clients. The group began to meet every Friday to design and paint a mural that now livens up the RAPP headquarters on Toole Avenue.

At the completion of the mural the Union saw the first flowering of its beliefs in people like Bob Simons. Simons was a Vietnam veteran whose struggle with drug addiction and manic depression left him chronically homeless. Simons credits his art apprenticeship as the impetus for his recovery.

"In August of last year, I was off of meds--I was a mess. I came over to RAPP, and they said they were going to make this mural, and I told them, I don't do art--I'm a biker--I'm a man--I don't do this frou-frou art stuff. But I started to have ideas ... I started drawing and everybody said that's good, that'll work ... and I started to document the whole thing, because things were changing all the time in me. The mural started to show up in my writing--it was starting to be something I looked forward to."

THE IMPLICATION OF conventional approaches to homelessness is that human issues can be reduced to a social equation that can be worked out in the realm of economics. In contrast, Union members insist that there are as many different "answers" to the problem as there are homeless individuals. They feel that the community must instead provide an environment in which learning can evolve.

Simons is adamant that the opportunity to make art ignited something that traditional programs were not able to spark in him.

"I've been through every one of these programs in this town," he says. "When I came back from Vietnam I was pretty messed up ... I never connected to anything ... but one of the things I'm finding now is a purpose. It sounds kind of weird, but that little mural across the street--I had to stay and do it. I started investing in it. [I realized] you don't have to be perfect ... and that changed everything for me. The art got me involved with people, and now I'm teaching art classes. The one thing everybody needs is a connection. And this art thing became my connection."

Simons is a success story as far as the Union members are concerned--and not because he now has an apartment and a job. Rather, they agree that it is his sense of self-worth that now motivates him to stay afloat and help others in similar situations.

Mural volunteer and Union art teacher John Bliss suggests that success itself must be redefined if recovery is to mean getting back into a home, and back into the mainstream.

"[As a member] here there is an opportunity to respect energy as a commodity," he says. "Energy as attention, direction or intention is the real commodity between people. ... We are building an economy based on this energy rather than on the profit motive."

Kim Young and Union members are looking to the community for assistance in the development and support of the project and will celebrate with an open house and art opening on February 17. Young says the evening will provide a good opportunity for people to get involved and to view in-house artwork.

"One thing we're really looking for from the community are sites that need art, whether it's mosaic, sculpture or paint at home or business, and we're hoping people will come down and check out our work. We're looking for places to hire us, galleries to sponsor us, or any donors to help with our wish list for art supplies, cooking and building materials."

Young is hopeful about potential community involvement. "I know that Tucson would love to make this alternative support accessible. ... I've seen what can happen here. It is amazing."

The Union for Art and Healing Local No. 8 officially opens to the public with a benefit Saturday, February 17 at 7 p.m. at 119 E. Toole Ave. The benefit will feature an art show and auction, music, a fire show and other performances. All proceeds will benefit the program. Call 740-0810 for more information.