Street Smarts

Ron Austin, 67, knows firsthand what it's like to live on the streets and be shunned from society.

The recovering addict says he remembers experiences like being shooed out of a restaurant during a sweltering summer day in Tucson while asking for a drink of water, being cursed at while digging through a trashcan for something to shield himself from a rainstorm, and being denied access to a public bathroom while trying to clean himself up.

"I remember at some point going to the City Hall complex to relieve myself and practice hygiene at the public bathrooms," Austin explains. "The guard stopped me and said, 'None of you people here.'"

These examples offer only a brief glimpse into the everyday lives of the homeless, but there are even worse realities, Austin says, like "street sweeping" and "bum bashing"—anti-homeless movements that can end in serious injuries or even death.

The movements are essentially a series of hate crimes; some serve as "initiations" to various organizations, while others are filmed and put on YouTube for entertainment purposes. What they all have in common, though, is that they victimize those who live on the streets through beatings with bats, bricks and rocks, Austin explains.

It was these harsh realities that got Austin, along with Sonia Sosa and several other volunteers, thinking of a way to create positive change right here in Tucson.

What they came up with is the Center for Creative Chaos, a nonprofit gallery with the main goal of "informing the public about the realities of homelessness," Austin says.

The gallery seeks to inform by showcasing documentaries on homelessness, participating in feedings at Santa Rita Park, and supporting homeless or formerly homeless artists by displaying and selling their work.

Photographs of the artists hang next to the art at the center, which gallery director Michael Karagavoorian says is part of an effort to help people overcome stereotypes.

"(People) don't look at the wall and see homelessness," Karagavoorian says. "We're trying to fill the gap; that bum they're bashing is an artist, a Pasteur, an Einstein, a human being."

Austin says the center's efforts are needed, because, for example, mainstream media generally don't show the homeless as well-dressed, articulate and looking for work. Instead, the public is presented with images of panhandling men with backpacks and dogs, which creates hate, he says.

It is this hate that may have led to the death of Carlos Figueroa, a man Austin describes as an "icon" for the center.

Figueroa, a homeless Navy veteran, was jumped, robbed and beaten to death while riding his bike in March 2003. While police and the media summed up his death as "homeless man beaten to death," he was a person who had a family, explains his daughter, Diana Figueroa.

Figueroa—a Center for Creative Chaos volunteer and Primavera Foundation supervisor—says that she met Austin through Primavera and got involved with the center as a way to turn her grief into something positive.

Austin has recruited volunteers through Primavera and has spread the word about the gallery through the use of social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.

The center also gained support from Pan Left Productions, a local nonprofit production company that fiscally sponsors the center. The fiscal sponsorship means that any money donated to the center goes through Pan Left, and therefore, donations and grants qualify as tax-deductible.

Since the center is still getting started—and since 100 percent of the proceeds from art that's sold is given back to the artists—Austin and center volunteers are hosting "Create Social Change," a benefit concert and art auction to help cover the gallery's rent, utilities and feedings.

"Everything has been out-of-pocket at the present," Austin says. "We need to get out of the financial boondocks. ... It's always about money, money, money. ... There are other things we'd like to do."

The benefit will be held from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Monday, June 29, at Z Mansion, 288 N. Church Ave. Admission is $5. Four musical acts will perform, including Black Man Clay. Artwork that will be sold in a silent auction will be on display starting Friday, June 26, at the Center for Creative Chaos, 739 N. Fourth Ave. Gallery hours are 1 to 8 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. Call 623-9061 for more information.

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