Matt Driscoll

Will a $100,000 arts project make a difference in Tacoma’s homelessness crisis? Let’s hope

The city of Tacoma is mired in a homelessness crisis. We all know that.

It’s been publicly declared. Millions have been spent to erect a tent city the likes of which have rarely been seen — and which rarely has open beds.

Our traditional shelters are equally full. More importantly, our ability to move people into transitional or permanent housing — the key to truly addressing homelessness — is essentially nonexistent, because those resources, unfortunately, essentially don’t exist.

In the midst of crisis, the city is trying something novel, unconventional and potentially surprising.

This year, Tacoma is spending $100,000 to fund two artists in residence. Ultimately, the idea is to use their art to help build community support for addressing the homelessness crisis.

Will it work?

And given everything the city faces, is spending $100,000 on art — admittedly a small amount in the grand scheme of city budgeting. but also enough to pay $800 a month in rental subsidies for 10 people for a year — worth the price tag?

“I believe so,” says city of Tacoma Arts Administrator Amy McBride.

“I think it’s well spent, and I think they’re doing good work,” McBride continued, calling the effort a “grand experiment.”

In describing this grand experiment, McBride says a Seattle-based artist is working to “reclaim” spaces in Tacoma that have been touched by homelessness, while an Austin, Texas-based, theater-of-the-oppressed-inspired artist recently debuted a performance arts piece.

Both are designed to foster dialogue, empathy and understanding throughout the city.

Clearly, that’s a worthwhile goal. To know anything about Tacoma’s homelessness crisis is to know that all of that is sorely lacking, and that truly addressing this crisis will require far more of it.

Still, the arts?

Yes, says McBride. The arts.

“The arts,” she explains, “have a way of occupying that space, and inviting people in in a way that can encourage conversations and certainly evoke emotions with difficult topics, but in a way that hopefully allows people a little bit more connection to the issue.

“Maybe it’s, ‘This isn’t as other as I thought it was’ or ‘I see how I could do something about that piece.’”

Last week, Tacoma got its first real glimpse, and a chance to view the payoff for itself.

On July 25, Roni Chelben, who was born and raised in Tel Aviv and moved to Austin 2011, debuted “In Our Backyard: A Community Conversation and Art Project about Homelessness” to roughly 150 people at the Tacoma Rescue Mission.

The performance, which will be repeated Saturday at Blueberry Park in Tacoma and at other locations this month, incorporates three parts.

First, the audience watches recorded chats between the housed and un-housed.

Then, a play — titled “Room for Rent” and performed by homeless and formerly homeless Tacoma residents — serves as the centerpiece.

Finally, it culminates with a facilitated conversation among participants — all of them, from cast and crew to those in the seats.

McBride describes the experience, which she witnessed last week, as “really, really powerful and enlightening.”

This isn’t Chelben’s first time working with people experiencing homelessness, or trying to inspire change through theater. In Austin, Chelben founded Am I Invisible, which she describes as “a theater advocacy group” made of people experiencing homelessness.

Chelben says she’s familiar with questions about the true impact of such efforts, and whether they’re worth it.

“It’s a really legitimate ask, or doubt,” Chelben offers. “Personally, I never know. … And I never get annoyed with this question, because I think we should always ask that, always rethink how we use the resources we have.

“I totally agree that the first and most important thing are the direct resources,” she continues. “However, to get the support, we need to explain the situation, and limit the stereotypes.

“Because all these stereotypes are a barrier.”

James Pogue, the director of homeless outreach for Comprehensive Life Resources and chairman of the Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness, agrees.

He will help facilitate the community conversations Saturday at Blueberry Park, and has seen the way that busting stereotypes — most notably, the familiar misconception that people experiencing homelessness are all drug addicts, or mentally ill, or simply don’t want to work — can pay real dividends.

“A lot of the work that I do is to just to try to create a dialogue, a cathartic dialogue, that leads us to a place where we actually want to find solutions,” Pogue says.

“There is some dogma out there that people who aren’t really living and breathing this every day really believe. … I’m finding that the actual biggest need right now is community action and education.”

Stefanie Glover is a performer in Chelben’s project. Currently recovering from addiction, she says she’s experienced homelessness, and like Pogue, sees a potential for dispelling stereotypes and allowing the community to come together in action.

“There’s a lot of community that’s really naïve to homelessness, and doesn’t really understand how easy it is to become homeless or what the problem is, or how to help fix or address the problem,” Glover says.

“So I think this brings conversation to the table, and kind of gives perspective on what the problem is and how we can work together as a community to make it better.”

If that happens, Pogue and plenty of others believe spending$100,000 — even with the city’s other pressing needs —is worth a shot.

“I’ve gone from lukewarm to, ‘You know what, this could be very powerful,’ ” Pogue says.

“If it starts a real dialogue in the community, it’s worth it.”

Upcoming performances of “In Our Backyard”

When: 3-5 p.m Saturday (Aug. 4).

Where: Charlotte’s Blueberry Park, 7402 E. D St.

When: 6-8 p.m. Tuesday (Aug. 7).

Where: Tacoma Community College, 6501 S. 19th St., at the tennis courts off of parking lot L, east of building 20.

When: 1-3 p.m. Aug. 12

Where: Portland Avenue Community Center, 3513 Portland Ave. E.

When: Aug. 16 as part of Tacoma’s Third Thursday Art Walk.


Tollefson Plaza, 17th Street and Pacific Avenue (5:30 p.m.)

Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave. (artist talk at 6:30 p.m.)

Tacoma Art Museum (video projection on exterior of building facing Pacific Avenue at 9 p.m.)