San Francisco Artist Brian Singer isn’t under any illusion that his art project directly helps the city’s homeless population.
“I don’t know how to solve the problem,” he admits. “My goal is to make people like me just take a second glance and remember that there is a population in need. I believe empathy and understanding is the first step towards action.”
The city’s homeless issues have been much in the news this year. When pandemic shelter-in-place orders went into effect in March, the number of people living on the streets in the Tenderloin grew 400 percent. More alarming has been the increase in the number of deaths of the homeless, said the San Francisco Chronicle in August. Data indicated that 125 homeless people had died by then, more than double the number in the same time period last year.
The homeless crisis in the Bay Area’s nine counties is not new; just worse. It began in the late 1970s, the result of a host of factors including economic dislocation, reduced social safety nets, mass incarceration, and failed housing policy, says the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association.
Home Street Home began 10 years ago, when Brian was working in the city’s SoMa neighborhood. Every day on the way to his office, he would walk past an older man who lived on the street under the freeway. His possessions, which included a blue blanket, some books, and a little radio, were piled in a shopping cart nearby. The man was there every day for a year-and-a-half. Until the day he wasn’t.
Weeks later, Singer, aka Someguy, launched his project. Using yarn on found cardboard, he hand-stitched the words “HOME STREET HOME,” and placed each one in a frame – much like framing a needlepoint canvas . He hung them in places where the city’s homeless lived. His goal was to draw awareness to their plight.
A second iteration appeared in 2016, when the Super Bowl came to town. The city ordered the homeless on Division Street, in what had become the biggest-ever homeless tent encampment, to leave before football festivities began. But where to? Most ended up just one block over.
“Out of sight, out of mind?” was Singer’s question before he got to work with a much larger version of his homey cross-stitch. His canvases were the chain-link fences that line Division Street, and at 16th and Folsom in the Mission District.
His most recent installation is a response to another city homeless order, which he believes does little more than cover up or camouflage the crisis. On the barricades installed to discourage tents and encampments, Singer has draped newly purchased camouflage sleeping bags. He knows they will be removed quickly by the city, so he’s safety-pinned handwritten instructions to each one that encourages homeless persons to take it and use it. “The message exists for a moment, and then, ideally, becomes something useful for those in need.”
Brian’s art includes intimate works with paper and books, large-scale installations and participatory endeavors, like his 1000 Journals Project, launched in 2000. It became a book and a feature-length documentary. Brian’s work will be featured at the 20th Annual Benefit Art Auction of the Coalition on Homelessness, scheduled for October 1 through 8. For more information, visit cohsf.org.