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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 of Art.

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 slept.

"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."

 

Laurie Busby
Newport Beach/Costa Mesa Daily Pilot
Thursday, October 19, 1995

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