Aerial dance sheds light on San Francisco’s most vulnerable homeless

San Francisco's homeless residents often receive the most public attention when they become the subject of a wedge issue at City Hall. But beginning today, the challenges of homelessness are being brought to the public through a much different medium — and in the heart of the Tenderloin.

The artist behind an aerial dance performance that focuses on the story of older homeless women hopes the project will cut through some of the fatigue people have in addressing the challenges of homelessness and generate more compassion for those living on the streets.

The 30-minute production opens today and runs until Sept. 20. Already, the performance has attracted attention as passers-by have stopped to observe the dancers practicing on the side of the UC Hastings College of the Law building since August, and the more curious have read the sign nearby explaining what it is about.

The production titled “Multiple Mary and Invisible Jane” is the passion of choreographer Jo Kreiter of Flyaway Productions, a San Francisco-based apparatus dance company. She conceived of it while working on a different production two years ago from the rooftop of the Renoir Hotel on McAllister Street, also in the Tenderloin, when she would look down onto the streets below and see homeless women “scurrying in the shadows.”

Kreiter noted that about 30 percent of the homeless population in San Francisco is female, and said her work in general focuses on promoting a female voice in public.

To that end, the art project uses the voices of San Francisco homeless women who were interviewed this spring telling their stories about what it's like on the streets and how they ended up without a home.

The stories vary. One woman lost her Noe Valley Victorian to foreclosure. Another suddenly had to have surgeries and could no longer work. One woman discussed how she suffered from verbal and physical abuse as a youth, turned to cocaine and spent time in jail for burglary but is now sober and housed.

The production helps put a human face on homelessness. And it also sheds light on what homeless-service workers say is an increasing segment of the population: seniors.

'Things have gotten worse'

Kathy Treggiari is the director of shelters for Episcopal Community Services, which operates the 334-bed Next Door shelter on Polk Street. She said seniors, those age 60 and above, are increasing in the shelter system, with 442 at Next Door in fiscal year 2012-13 compared to 484 last fiscal year.

The homeless population is diverse and ever-changing, leading to emerging challenges that require greater investment. For example, Treggiari said there is a behavioral health specialist team in city shelters, but there are only 10 people, better than the seven of a few years ago, though “we advocate for more.”

Treggiari said there is an increase of those requiring more assistance. “There's definitely an increase in people who have problems self-caring,” Treggiari said, which means using the bathroom or showering.

As a longtime San Francisco resident, Kreiter has seen the homeless population throughout the decades and, like many, observes that not much has changed in terms of numbers.

“I feel like nothing has changed, and I feel like things have gotten worse,” Kreiter said.

That perception is supported by recent data. San Francisco's every-other-year homeless count identified 6,436 last year, of which 3,401 were on the streets without shelter, while the other homeless people in the count resided in shelters, transitional housing, resource centers, residential treatment, jail or hospitals. In 2005, 6,248 were counted. A city report released in March found that San Francisco spends $165.7 million on homelessness annually.

The challenges around homelessness are often hotly debated and generally only become a popular topic when they are the focus of a political wedge issue, such as when a law was proposed and adopted in 2010 to make sitting or lying on the sidewalk illegal.

Most recently, City Hall debated the issue as The City's 10-year plan to end homelessness in The City expired with a series of public meetings amid the annual budget process this past June. Since then the conversation over the issue has quieted down at City Hall. The City did boost its investment in homelessness, such as increasing the staff of the homeless outreach team and providing $2.5 million to public housing to rehabilitate vacant units for those without homes.

In addition to promoting compassion, Kreiter hopes that the performance will “reinvigorate people already out there working on solutions.” And she hoped for a “radical re-envisioning of housing in The City.”

One step in that direction, she said, was if voters approve November's anti-speculation tax, Proposition G.

Kreiter said she chose the Tenderloin because it's “where the issue lives” and the walls of the buildings are the witnesses of it. “I like to think of it as what the site sees.”

The Power of Art

The power of art to improve a place is becoming a belief increasingly evident in new policies and projects in San Francisco. A new public-art program treats art not as an afterthought but an integral component of development. Artwork on utility boxes transform the eyesores into accepted jewels. The man behind the Bay Bridge LED light project, Ben Davis, has plans to install LED lights above the length of Market Street to connect separated communities.

Art is also being used to help homeless cope and heal. Rev. Mary Moreno-Richardson, who leads the Guadalupe Art Program that is using to art to help heal women and children who are victims of violence, runs a woman's group every Tuesday morning at the Next Door shelter. Sometimes three or four women attend, other times as many as 12. One exercise she asks them to do is “paint themselves into the divine.”

“A lot of these women have been traumatized by the situation,” said Richardson, who began her work at the shelter more than a year ago.

She said she was struck by how many older homeless there were and specifically older white women, a trend she suggested was related to the rising cost of living and evictions in San Francisco and the Bay Area at large.

“It's such a challenge financially for anyone,” Richardson said, calling these people “the new faces of homelessness.”

She explained that she has seen how vulnerable some of these women are, having money stolen or simply bullied around for being so frail — some needing walkers to get around — among a population that can include younger drug addicts and those who recently came out of jail.

Richardson suggested it would help if The City had more site-specific shelters, places only for seniors, and only for women, “so people don't feel so vulnerable.”

As San Francisco's cost-of-living increases and more seniors are joining the homeless population there is also growing wealth in The City, yet some are critical of how much The City invests in social services as others call for more.

“How can we possibly think we are spending too much in a city that has so much?” Richardson said. “I think it's where we choose to put that money. What do we care about?”

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