About a month ago, an artist called Christina Sukhgian Houle dropped into the Spare Change News’ headquarters to meet with some of the vendors. Christina has joined forces with the newspaper’s co-founder, James Shearer, with the goal of making a documentary on homelessness in the Boston area.
Christina is a relatively recent transplant to Greater Boston, having lived most recently in New York, where she worked as an adjunct professor of art at the College of New Jersey. Although she may be new to Boston, she brings to Spare Change News some excellent experience of working with homeless people in Manhattan.
“I was the first creative director at the oldest Drop-In Shelter for the Homeless at Grand Central Neighborhood,” she shared. “There I was charged with designing art classes and art programing for the residents.”
Christina’s creative work with the homeless community of New York—and her current work with James Shearer—exemplifies the kind of art she’s interested in: public art that builds community. It’s perhaps this emphasis on civic engagement that also motivates Christina’s teaching: she’s worked as an educator for over a decade and was a teaching artist at the Center for Urban Pedagogy in Brooklyn.
After finishing her MFA and entering the workforce, Christina decided to dedicate time to developing as an artist and enrolled in Harvard’s master’s degree in technology, innovation and education. Using new forms of digital communication in her art and teaching is an approach that particularly interests her, so the Harvard degree was a perfect fit.
“I felt like I still didn’t have the tools to make effective change through art,” she said. “I decided to come to Harvard to better understand how both to be a better teacher and a better artist… My classes have placed an emphasis on participatory media, civic engagement, social activism and new forms of story telling.”
Christina’s emphasis on creative work with the homeless community goes beyond her work in New York. In fact, its roots can be found in her childhood.
“When I was young,” she said, “I remember seeing a homeless person for the first time standing on a median asking for food or change. I was driving in the passenger seat with my mother and asked if we could go get the man a sandwich and bring it back. We went home and made a lunch for the man, but when we went back, he was gone and our opportunity to interact with him had passed. I think from a very young age it was obvious to me that homelessness is a fundamental injustice that no one chooses, and it has been on my mind for a number of years as something the country needs to come together to address.”
Many years later, first in New York and now in Cambridge, Christina has made up for that original missed encounter with the homeless man by reaching out to homeless people and helping them tell their stories. In Cambridge, this emerged in the form of a meeting with a vendor near Harvard Square, from whom she learned about the evacuation of the Long Island shelter.
“In January, I bought a Spare Change paper from a vendor near Harvard Square,” she said, “and I read about the closure… I was shocked to read the story and was surprised—as a news junkie—I hadn’t heard the story before. I was impressed that Spare Change News was reporting stories I wasn’t getting from other sources, and I wanted to learn how I could get involved to help promote and craft those stories and to make sure they could reach as many people as possible.”
After reading the story, Christina connected with Katherine Bennett, the executive director of the Homeless Empowerment Project, who told her that James Shearer was working on a video project. She and James met and have begun preparations for a longer-form documentary on homelessness in Boston.
Christina sees a lot of value in the voices of Spare Change News’ vendors and believes one of the first steps in becoming an activist for homelessness issues is to talk to people experiencing homelessness. After that, she recommends joining forces with one of the organizations that specialize in either donating goods to homeless people or advocating for them.
“There are lots of ways to get involved,” she said, “but the first thing I would say is get to know your local Spare Change vendor. Ask him or her their name, say hello each time you pass, ask them how they are doing and if they need anything. Second, get involved with C.O.P.E. to donate goods to the homeless, and, third, become an advocate for the homeless by joining the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.”
Of course, meaningful change often requires a combination of grassroots pressure and the political will of people at the top. This is why I asked Christina for her views on the presidential candidates currently competing for the allegiance of progressive voters. Although neither candidate has put homelessness at the center of their campaign, one can easily draw conclusions about the kind of policies that might be beneficial for people who are either already homeless or who are at risk of becoming so.
“Bernie Sanders is advocating to address increased access to health care and closing the income gap,” said Christina. “Though he is not directly addressing the issue of homelessness, I think these two issues demonstrate his commitment to caring for all citizens regardless of income status. That value is fundamental to addressing homelessness.”
The value Sanders embodies for Christina—that “all citizens should be cared for regardless of income status”—is also something she sees working at Spare Change News. It’s only through hearing the stories of homeless or low-income people that this value can be fully understood. The next step, after these stories have been told, is to turn them, in Christina’s words, “into legislation.”
“The stories and the experiences that the homeless have are their weapon for reform,” she said, “and the more that those stories can be crafted and lifted up, the better it will be for the future of homeless affairs in Boston… As a city, homelessness should make us mad, and we need to be told what to do so that we can turn that energy into action. So I also believe that the more Spare Change News, its vendors and their patrons can work with allied organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, the better.”