'Hey bro, can you spare 38 cents?"
"What are you going to use it for?"
"I ain't gonna lie, man — I'm gonna buy some beer. I need a drink."
Sean was a 38-year-old version of so many of my friends. He loved surfing, was honest and loyal and had a tyrant of a father. I think that's what made it so hard to walk away from our first conversation in New Orleans: I saw myself in him. I saw how easy it is to go from bad luck to hopelessness.
Being confronted with the humanity of a stranger held some power.
It's a principle espoused by French artist JR, winner of the 2011 TED Prize for his Inside Out photography street art project. I was moved particularly after seeing oversized portraits of Israelis and Palestinians pasted right next to each other on the Separation Wall, but he's featured all kinds of people in all kinds of places, ultimately to challenge viewers' preconceptions of their neighbors.
Every since I saw JR's work, I've wanted to respond to his challenge to use art to change the world. And while I'm not sure there's correct subject matter to glue onto large buildings, snapshots of homeless people in our city seemed a good place to start.
In Colorado Springs, most homeless people aren't seen as homeless. They wear normal clothes, hold jobs, have children who go to school. Few people know that they sleep in their cars, or that their kids walk to class from under a bridge.
Often, these people benefit from the kindness, care and resourcefulness of organizations that help folks in crisis. But when it comes to moving from a post-crisis state into a thriving lifestyle, they can struggle to locate support.
That was part of the impetus for New Life Church creating Dream Centers of Colorado Springs a couple years ago. This nonprofit has since come to run a free medical clinic for uninsured and underinsured women, and a couple homes for young adults who "age out" of foster care. Soon it will open an apartment complex for formerly homeless single mothers and their children.
But everyone at Dream Centers and at New Life, myself included, knows the work is far from done. So recently, with support from the organization, I along with an incredible group of volunteers including international artist Emile Ibrahim, local photographer Melissa Tenpas, and Dream Centers director Matthew Ayers, started planning some holy ruckus.
We got permissions and permits, talked to building owners, and held photo shoots with our homeless friends.
Before long, the community-minded, fun-loving owners of the downtown climbing gym CityRock told me, "If you are going to do it, you might as well go big." I soon found myself rappelling off their building, covered in gooey flour-sugar-water glue, pasting a portrait of Jaime with the team. As it came to life, we heard comments like, "We need more of this kind of stuff in town," and "Who is she? What's her story? Her eyes are beautiful."
At 40 feet tall, that portrait at Bijou and Kiowa streets is our most obvious work, but we've pasted more than 15 others, in places like the Crissy Fowler building on West Vermijo Avenue, and at New Life. We have a few ideas for the future, too.
I'm not sure what the outcome will be. Hopefully people take some time to see the beauty in the individuals we choose to paste, and are inspired to probe deeper into the complexities of homelessness. Maybe we'll add new fuel to a conversation that was hot earlier this year. Maybe more faces will be shared in more places, even if they have nothing to do with homelessness; there are plenty of unheard stories locally. I don't know.
But I believe we need more co-laboring and co-creating, and more slowing down to hear the stories. We need more cross-disciplinary, "Let's-give-it-a-try's."
Because when it comes to most problems in our community, especially something like getting people out of homelessness, there's no easy fix. You need endurance, genuine hope and commitment.
It can happen. In New Orleans, Sean was one of many whose story was redeemed, re-imagined, re-created. Seeing him get off the street, reconcile to his family, sober up, and obtain a solid job was exhilarating. It's the kind of thrill I can imagine for this city we love.
Bobby Mikulas, a Colorado Springs native, works with New Life Church helping connect people with healthy ways to serve the city.