Photographs reveal joys of Human Solutions shelter families
Visitors to the Collins Gallery in Portland's Central Library will see photos of smiling children and their parents and gallery goers might be surprised to learn that these happy families are residents of Gresham's Human Solutions Family Shelter.
"A lot of them saw it as a new beginning," being in the shelter, Rachel O'Rourke, the photographer behind the show said.
"What I was interested in was the story of how these families migrated to the shelter, I was concerned with their journey and how the families got there," she said, guiding a visitor through the exhibit. "I wanted to recognize the work it takes for these families to get what they need for their children."
Assessing the families' situations, she "started to look at the whole of the issues" and called the families' odysseys forced migration. "These are domestic refugees."
The show is called "Migration Patterns: Mapping Our Journey." It runs through Feb. 25 at the Collins Gallery on the third floor of the Central Library, 801 S.W. 10th Ave. in Portland.
O'Rourke worked for 10 months to build trust with residents housed in the shelter, 16015 S.E. Stark St. before attempting to take any photographs."I set up a professional photo booth inside the shelter. It was an amazing response. That was the turning point," she said. "They wanted to have a portrait. Families got themselves ready, even though there was only one shower in the shelter. Many families had lost family photos on their migration path or couldn't afford them in the first place."
Strength and pride
"They wanted to show their strength and pride," she said, and described the photographs of the intentionally-unidentified families as full of "life and playfulness."
In this exhibition of photographs, maps and "sacred" objects, she tells the story of local "forced migration, economic displacement, escape from domestic violence and everyday experiences that demonstrate the fortitude required to live as a domestic refugee" in the metro area, a show statement said.
She said using the term domestic refugee "makes sense, to label what they are experiencing. It may give people more empathy."
Some of the residents plotted and annotated their journeys to the shelter on maps O'Rourke provided. She also framed meaningful objects, such as a razor and bar of soap that are part of the welcome kits the shelter hands out. Other framed objects included a pair of new, clean socks and a box of unused crayons.
"Some people don't have access to these things. They become sacred objects," she said.
Realities of homelessness
The exhibit illustrates the realities of many families in the shelter. Many of the families in the shelter have a parent who is working. Some of the families are headed by a single mom who has escaped domestic violence, and some families have fled violence in their dangerous communities. Families have also experienced no-cause evictions.
Mental illness, job loss, or medical issues in the family can also cause the instability that puts families in the shelter. Many families are also struggling to overcome generational poverty.
O'Rourke is an art therapist and artist and has a master's degree in art therapy from the Art Institute of Chicago. She has worked with gang-involved youth, refugees and immigrant youth and children who have experienced trauma.
O'Rourke calls herself a "social action artist." A single mother of two children, she has worked with unhoused people in shelters before the project, but this deeper experience moved her. She said she was surprised that the shelter was overcrowded and not as clean and inviting as it could be.
She undertook the project because, "I wanted people to see the faces of people living in our city that are struggling and how many kids are suffering dislocations and houselessness, and I want people to relate to the people they see. We all want the same things for our children. They want safety, food shelter and a better life."