Crowds and well-lit places are
a homeless woman’s best defense.
That is one of the things New York
artist and photo-journalist Ann Marie Rousseau learned during
her 10 years chronicling the plight of 18 homeless women in
the 1970s and early 1980s.
An exhibit of her photographs coupled
with the homeless women’s words, titled "Out of Place,
Out of Mind," opens today at Orange Coast College’s Art
Gallery. The work in the exhibit comes from Rousseau’s 1981
book, "Shopping Bag Ladies: Homeless Women Speak About
Their Lives," which was the basis for the 1985 CBS movie,
"Stone Pillow," starring Lucille Ball.
"Everyone has a story,"
Rousseau said. "The words are the text- they form the personal
portraits. Through their words, you get to know them, hear their
stories. I tried to let the text speak for their ‘why,’ their
own version of what had happened, how they came to be there."
Rousseau, who is in town teaching
an experimental painting class as part of OCC’s Artist-in-Residence
program, discovered homeless women while teaching an art workshop
at a shelter.
"I didn’t know what a shelter
was at the time," she said. "It was how I first met
homeless women. I didn’t know they existed."
Rousseau continued to work with
the homeless and eventually got a grant for a photography class-
where the women were given cameras to record their vision of
New York. The photos were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum
Then Rousseau began the "Shopping
Bag Ladies" project- traveling around the country visiting
skid rows and photographing women.
"I talked to very extreme
cases- people who had been homeless a long time, who had been
surviving on the streets," she said. "What I was really
trying to photograph in the work I did was not so much portraits
of the women- which I did do- but portraits of the environment
in which they were invisible."
Rousseau would hookup with a woman
and go with her wherever she went, stay with her wherever she
"It gave me a deeper understanding
of how dangerous it is for women to be homeless- and the strategies
they use to protect themselves," Rousseau said.
Those strategies included staying
where there was light and other people- such as train stations
and hospital emergency rooms.
"Having other people around
was crucial," she said.
Rousseau learned that, because
of the constant danger, the women rarely slept at night.
"Sleep deprivation was a huge
factor in the disorientation of being homeless," she said.
"People who had to live outside for any length of time
became more disabled than they were before."
Rousseau observed that a homeless
woman’s personality would change once she could get some shelter,
sleep and a little food.
"They would be more coherent
and able to make some sort of plan about what to do with their
future," she said. "When I met them on the street,
they couldn’t think of anything to do other than getting food
for that day or where to sleep that night."
And Rousseau learned that the women
would guard ferociously what little possessions they had.
"By holding on to them, they
were holding on to sanity," she said. "It was like,
the more substance they had, the more substance they felt."
Rousseau found that it was seldom
one event- such as losing an apartment- that caused a woman
to be homeless.
"It always was sort of an
accumulation of events- having to do with economics, mental
health, addition- something was holding them by a thread inside,"
she said. "Many people subsist marginally- there is some
check that comes from somewhere, some little room where they
pay rent. They may be eccentric or bizarre- but they are able
to maintain themselves.
"But knock over one of those
pins and they end up out on the street."
Newport Beach/Costa Mesa Daily Pilot
Thursday, October 19, 1995