Artist-Investigator Elizabeth Gjelten on Delivering Innovation in Supportive Housing

As part of our ongoing series about the Triangle Lab Artist-Investigator program, we have asked our AI’s to write about their projects. Here, our Artist-Investigator Elizabeth Gjelten gives a look inside her work with the Delivering Innovation in Supportive Housing (D.I.S.H.) organization.

Delivering Innovation in Supportive Housing (D.I.S.H.) provides high-quality, permanent housing to formerly homeless San Franciscans who suffer from serious health issues. Elizabeth Gjelten, a writer/arts educator, is working with D.I.S.H. to develop activities that will create more opportunities for beauty and creativity in the lives of residents. 

By Elizabeth Gjelten

Photographs by Audra Miller

For people who get into housing after living on the streets, it’s a huge relief to have a door they can close—to lock out the chaos and danger. But that door also presents its own danger: isolation. This is the main thing I heard over months of listening to tenants, caseworkers, and managers at D.I.S.H. (Delivering Innovation in Supportive Housing), which provides supportive housing for people who were homeless and had serious health issues. After years on the streets, most lack the most basic tools needed to live side-by-side with neighbors and follow rules. They’ve often lost whatever semblance of community they may have had outside (folks who watched each other’s back or used together), and when they’re working on sobriety, it can be risky to spend time outside in the Tenderloin. Sometimes it feels easier to stay in their rooms and watch TV. This is D.I.S.H.’s challenge: not only to maintain safe, decent housing and give tenants the support they need to stay there, but also to help them rebuild their lives and build community.

Sometimes the first step in rebuilding your life is to value it. A beautiful, professional portrait can be a powerful tool to say to yourself and to anyone else who looks at it: This is who I am, what I’m worth. When I learned that a D.I.S.H. intern, Audra Miller, is a skilled photographer, it seemed obvious: Why not create a portrait gallery of willing tenants at the D.I.S.H. hotels? And why not strengthen the message of these photographs with the tenants’ own words? With the help of some list-making and other writing exercises, the tenants reveal what home means to them.

Aja

“Home is being part of a community that helps and lets me be me.” — Aja

 

Luis

 “I am at home when I am with my tools.” — Luis

For Luis, home means having a place where he can keep his tools safe and pursue his passion for woodworking.

 

Kolinio

“I feel at home when anybody says hello and smiles at me …” — Kolinio

 Home may mean the daily specifics of community, the celebrations, and greetings.

 

Patricia

“Home is a place where I feel uplifted.” — Patricia

 Or it may simply be the positive feelings of community. When I heard Patricia died a few weeks ago, I was saddened—but heartened to know that the picture of her words and hands (she was too shy to show her face) will be part of her legacy at her last home.

As we wrap up the portrait-and-writing sessions, we’ll frame the photos in groups, to go in the hotels’ community rooms, where they’ll be a beautiful conversation piece, a powerful record of tenants’ lives, a testament to what it takes to build community, and an excuse for a party! Also, D.I.S.H. administrators are already talking about how they can use these photos to convey their work and mission to the larger community.

 

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