Few can drive down a street or by a freeway overpass without seeing them—makeshift camps in empty lots, tents dotted alongside freeways or by creeks, the worldly possessions of their inhabitants stacked around them.
Too difficult to avoid—each passerby bears witness to the homeless crisis.
Each exceeding 7,000 people, San Francisco and Santa Clara County almost vie for the highest homeless populations in the Bay Area based on 2017 data.
Shedding light and compassion for the homeless is local photographer and storyteller Kirti Bassendine who created a social documentary photographic story to dispel myths in the public’s perception regarding homelessness.
The multimedia exhibit, “Homeless Voices,” is on display at the Gilroy Center for the Arts through Jan. 26.
Bassendine’s, who divides her time between her homes in Morgan Hill and Paicines, hopes her work raises awareness and encourages community leaders to allocate resources to help homeless to get back on their feet.
“The exhibition is designed to put a name to a face,” explains Bassendine. “It’s a really important element that I wanted to portray. Any one of us, at any moment, any day, any tragedy, could be homeless.”
After Bassendine approached local organizations with her project, the Gilroy Compassion Center, a nonprofit offering the homeless resources for basic needs, offered to help. Executive director Jan Bernstein Chargin started to introduce Bassendine to several homeless men and women in the community.
Over a two month period, Bassendine gained their trust and started capturing their stories through videos and photographs.
The project revealed many of the subjects experienced homelessness due to tragic life events.
Some would succumb to wildfires that destroyed their homes or the inability to pay for medical treatment. For others, it may have been the death of a spouse, financial market crashes, or the rising cost of rent, divorce, or job loss.
These tragedies were only compounded by depression.
Some have jobs, but don’t make enough to cover rising rent so they sleep rough in cars, tents or out in the open.
Arranged in three sections, “Neutral Space” opens the exhibit with color portraits of subjects, free of judgement and only identified by their first name.
Bassendine did not provide any instructions for their portraits and opted not to objectify or even glamorize the homeless because she felt it would detract from the project’s mission—to provide a voice for the homeless.
In another portion of the exhibit, Bassendine says she used short films to draw the viewer into the story—asking each subject the same questions.
“Homelessness can be a very temporary environment living space and people are able to get out of with a helping hand,” Bassendine says, “Second chances is a big theme in my project.”
One of the featured subjects Faviola came to see the exhibit.
“She was so emotionally moved, she was in tears during the film,” says Bassendine. “She later gave me a big hug and said ‘thank you for doing this for us.’”
Kevin Heath, executive director of the Gilroy Center for the Arts, says Bassendine’s work fits with the Center’s mission.
“It is important to balance social issues and cultural exhibitions with traditional art exhibits,” says Heath. “Art educates, and it’s part of our mission to broaden horizons in the most creative ways we can.”
One patron, Veronica Cruz, commented the exhibit is a powerful collection that shines much needed light on the homeless crisis.
“Kirti’s collection shows real faces paired with moving stories that could be anyone of us,” says Cruz. “The collection offers a platform for thoughtful discourse to really, truly begin to make tangible strides to address this growing epidemic.”
Local architect and vice chair of the Compassion Center Reid Lerner asserts that even acknowledging homelessness is an act of bravery and says it’s possible for people to come out of homelessness, as is case of one employee at the Compassion Center, Janessa who was once homeless or the story of the center’s own Jan Bernstein Chargin.
“When Jan Bernstein Chargin was a young woman, she was homeless,” Lerner says. “Today she has a master’s degree and she is the official spokesperson for the community college, a professional artist, has a family. She is having a normal life after being homeless. She pulled herself together.”
Bassendine’s passion stems from her childhood growing up in Kenya and observing discrimination. Her family emigrated to England during a politically turbulent time in the ’70s. Bassendine holds a BA (Hons) in Fine Arts Photography from Derby University, England. Her first photographic exhibit “Voiceless” toured England for three years and received positive accolades documenting the role of a traditional young Indian girl living in a Western world torn between cultures.
Since her move to the United States in the early 1990s, Bassendine has personally endured two wildfire evacuations, and suffered a debilitating car accident leaving her unable to work for two years.
Bassendine says she was fortunate to have help getting back on her feet.
“Through these experiences and others, I made friends with many people who are currently homeless or on the edge of homelessness for many reasons,” explains Bassendine. “Hearing their stories, you soon realize that these are mostly normal people dealing with extraordinary circumstances, who just want to be heard and treated with some respect as fellow human beings in need of a helping hand or a second chance.”
Visit the Gilroy Center for the Arts at gilroycenterforthearts.com and learn more about Kirti Bassendine at kirtibassendine.com/gallery/homeless-voices.