Vulnerability. It is an essential part of the creative process and integral to the artwork I recently completed as part of a challenge handed to me by professors Olivia G.M. Washington and David P. Moxley of Wayne State University, in connection with a research project for which they served as lead investigators. The eight large-scale narrative portraits they commissioned from my studios recently were displayed under the exhibition title Telling My Story at the Edge of Recovery: Eight African American Women's Recovery from Homelessness in Detroit.
SOCIAL SCIENCE AND ARTISTIC INTERSECTIONS
Dr. Washington, who holds joint appointments with the College of Nursing and the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State University (WSU), and Dr. Moxley, formerly of WSU's School of Social Work and recently appointed Oklahoma Healthcare Authority Medicaid Endowed Professor of Public Health and Professor of Social Work at University of Oklahoma, have been engaged in a long-term research project addressing the needs of older African American women struggling to overcome homelessness in Detroit, a city that many in the public sector agree is seriously lacking in sufficient necessary social services. Their larger research project, the Leaving Homelessness Intervention Research Project (LHIRP), has received funding from a variety of sources, including the National Institute of Aging. Among other things, Washington and Moxley's investigations have led to proposals for creation of the Detroit Sofia Community, based upon the concept of "intentional community" that would tie together community resources with those who would benefit from them. (1)
A city of fewer than one million people and dropping, Detroit can be a rough town if you are poor, and even rougher if you are African American and poor, especially if you are an older (over 50) African American woman. According to the LHIRP team, this last group represents one of the fastest-growing sectors within the homeless population. The reasons are many and diverse. According to the LHIRP team:
Homelessness is a life-threatening phenomenon affecting older African American women in alarming proportions. In 1999, researchers estimated that 360,000 older African American women were homeless in the United States. This number is comparable to the population for the state of Wyoming. Between 2002 and 2004, the largest homeless shelter in the State of Michigan, located in Detroit, experienced a 128% increase in the number of people seeking shelter (i.e., 181 new homeless people sought shelter in a typical week). In 2004, an estimated 10,526 people sought emergency shelter, with only 4,311 beds available. [In] 2005, approximately 15,000 to 17,000 people were homeless in Detroit on any day. (2)
But with unemployment reaching 7.7 percent in Michigan, (3) (compared to 5.0 percent nationwide) and as the American automotive industry attempts to pull back from the brink of collapse, middle-class families face the prospect of losing their homes, cars, income, and formerly solid lifestyles. According to a Detroit News article, in 2005 Wayne County (where Detroit is located) was rated the worst in the nation for home foreclosures; more than 9,000 home foreclosures occurred in that year, due in part to cutbacks in overtime and layoffs for autoworkers, and the overextended finances and trickle-down job losses from related businesses. (4) Deepening unemployment and increased home foreclosures were anticipated in 2007. (5) The potential for the rate of homelessness reaching record proportions is evident.
As part of their innovative vision, the LHIRP team addressed different ways in which they could bring the stories of older homeless African American women to the public. Art had already played a role in the researchers' vary-ing approaches to healing the women's self-esteem and sense of self-worth. These included encouraging the women to create …