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Introduction: What does it mean to be homeless? My home is not only a roof over my head. It is my anchor, a source of stability, a refuge from a world that is at times both stressful and alienating. When I go away it is the place I know I can return, in my thoughts when I am homesick, in reality when my travels are through. Because I am young, healthy and able to work I support this home. I have friends and family for other kinds of support. In this way I am privileged. If I became sick and incapacitated mentally or physically, if for some reason I could not support myself, who would take care of me? My friends and family might look out for me for awhile, but they have their own lives, and their own problems. What if my condition of joblessness or disability was serious and long lasting? The thought of being forced to rely on public charities is chilling. So it was with some apprehension that a few years ago I agreed to take a job teaching a recreational art class at the Shelter Care Center for Women in New York City. This center houses women who are, for a variety of reasons, without financial support or a place to live. My own worst fears about homelessness were heightened by this tangible manifestation of reality for those who could not provide for themselves, but it was through my work there that I began to understand something about the lives of the women in the shelter and the prospects for all women in a society that does not adequately provide for the weak and the powerless.

The women at this residence were often in a crisis situation in their lives. Alcoholism, mental illness, evictions, family quarrels, mismanagement on welfare and lost or stolen funds had left them homeless. Some were older women suffering from physical illness and senility, a few were battered wives escaping from husbands and others were young girls running away from home or unable to deal adequately with severe personal problems.

I initially taught a class in painting and drawing, but when some interest developed in using an old instamatic camera, I was amazed at the response to the pictures the women took. Some had not seen photographs of themselves in twenty years. One woman peered intently at her image for a long time and asked over and over again if that was really her face. When I asked what she thought of it, she replied, "If that’s me, I didn’t know I looked that good." Using one broken camera and a few rolls of film, women began photographing everything in sight. This also opened up an opportunity for me to begin taking a few pictures of them. We all looked forward to seeing the results. We shared thoughts about the portrayal of character and the meaning of images. Our discussions were a relief from the boredom of institutional life and brought the women together to discover new interests and to relate to each other in new ways. The excitement generated in the classes was an inspiration for me to apply, then receive, a grant to teach an art and photography class at the shelter. I received funds for this purpose from the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Joint Foundation Support, Inc. The women’s work was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum, Sirovich Community Center and The Queens Public Library.

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