Voices of the Unhoused

Collaboration with Ro Adler

In July 2020, in the wake of the uprisings spurred by George Floyd’s murder, and in the depths of the pandemic, an encampment of over 150 unhoused people formed in the middle of Philadelphia as an act of protest. Among the protest camp’s demands were that the city make available vacant PHA-owned houses and stop sweeping homeless encampments. As one of the first people on the ground helping out at the camp, I watched as interest in the camp grew and pressure from the city (to disband) mounted. Though the encampment started getting a lot of press, organizers were upset that journalists never bothered to print the stories or words of the camp’s unhoused residents. They were more comfortable talking with the organizers themselves and the camp’s (largely young, white) volunteers.

Responding directly to this complaint from camp organizers, I teamed up with my friend Ro Adler, who draws portraits. Together, we sat with 20 of the camp’s residents individually. I interviewed each person about their experience of homelessness while my collaborator, Ro, drew their portrait. I edited the interviews for clarity, but kept each person’s exact words.

We then printed the portraits alongside the stories in a large format and wheat-pasted them around the city as a way to make the human stories and experiences of camp residents visible to all. We also shared the portraits and stories on social media. To speak directly to the residents of the luxury condos that abutted the camp, we printed booklets of the project and placed them conveniently outside the condo buildings’ entrances in handmade boxes.

 

Today, over a year later, the organizers of the camp are in the final stages of formalizing the transfer of 50 PHA-owned houses to a new land trust. Those houses are already being lived in (free of cost) by formerly unhoused Philadelphians.