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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Bringing the homeless into focus

A picture taken by a homeless person on

A picture taken by a homeless person on display at City Hall. Photo Credit: Mark Chiusano

German Rosa was sleeping on the subway until a homeless outreach organization helped him into transitional housing.

From the window of his new room in Washington Heights, he photographed the city skyline. The view looked like Paris, he explained.

That picture was on display yesterday at City Hall, as part of "Through the Eyes of the Homeless," an artistic collaboration between New York City's Department of Homeless Services and Heart Gallery NYC.

A problem and a response

It hasn't been an easy year for DHS. All summer, headlines screamed about a homelessness crisis that Mayor Bill de Blasio was accused of misunderstanding. Even his outspoken Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has said that the mayor was mistaken in "not validating what we all were seeing."

Through the doldrums of summer, however, DHS and Heart Gallery gave out cameras to 14 homeless or recently homeless people, paired them with working photographers as mentors, and asked them to take pictures of the city from their vantage point. The idea was based on a French project.

Janet Sandlin took her photo while she was walking through Midtown. She was struck by the image of water running in the street, "so clearly that you could drink it, almost," she says. She snapped a picture of a manhole rimmed by water droplets.

Sandlin, 54, comes from Alabama, but spent time out West. "I wasn't going anywhere. I was starting to get in trouble," she says. So she came to New York. She "was only planning on passing through," but she's been here for 15 years. She spent most of that time living on the streets in the Meatpacking District.

"I managed to find some really good hiding places," which she said was important. In June, the organization Breaking Ground took her off the street and into transitional housing on the Lower East Side.

Bringing the problem into focus

The program is, of course, no substitute for the comprehensive solutions under consideration by the administration — from access to better mental health care services to expansion of supportive housing in service of the approximately 57,900 individuals now living in DHS shelters. But programs like this exhibition help to put a face on homelessness beyond a number, rising or falling.

Rosa, 59, says that he will be spending Thanksgiving with his mother, who lives in Coney Island.

While he was homeless he tried to hide it from her. But he came clean in telling her about his new place in Washington Heights. She said that she always knew, but she didn't intrude, according to Rosa. "I have a little pride," he said.

This is amExpress, the conversation starter for New Yorkers.


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