Book Bin Displays Art, Stories of People Displaced by Sweeps
A wide range of local activists and on-the-ground organizers have been very vocal over the past year in their opposition to city sweeps that have been continually displacing unhoused community members. From acting as buffers between people being swept and city employees carrying out the sweeps, to organizing protests and speaking at city council meetings, these activists have found several ways to advocate for their unhoused neighbors. Now, they have found an artistic avenue for unhoused people to speak out directly about their own experiences.
As can sometimes happen, the attention given to the struggle itself — in this case, the fight to stop the sweeps — may trivialize or even fail to represent and humanize those who are actually struggling. In an effort to help remedy this, organizers and volunteers at the Corvallis Daytime Drop-In Center (CDDC) have partnered with the Book Bin to curate the “Camp Sweeps” window display, an art exhibit that exclusively features the work of unhoused people.
The display was assembled by Robin Weis, a local experimental installation artist and former Book Bin employee who worked closely with Maddie Bean, the CDDC’s Street Outreach and Response Team (SORT) Coordinator, to showcase these artists’ work. Bean was seminal in gathering input about the display from people living in encampments who don’t frequent the CDDC.
The idea arose from the CDDC’s volunteer-run Art Tuesday events, a new weekly project that is “meant to include traditionally underserved and ignored groups in the artistic cultural identity of Corvallis.”
A poster describing the exhibit hangs in a window by the main entrance of the Book Bin. “Camp sweeps are when officials carry out the systematic displacement of unhoused people from their encampments,” it reads. “Corvallis camp sweeps affect us. Here are the stories of those affected by camp sweeps, told through art.”
Pasted below the poster are the various artists’ names: Sky, Sheena Hopkins, Samuel G., Emma Coddington, Johnny, and Marion Ballard.
Nothing About Us Without Us
Allison Hobgood, Executive Director of the CDDC, sees things like the art exhibit as a step in the right direction.
“I come from a disability justice perspective, which is a kind of ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ mindset, and I feel like the thing that has been missing that we need to work on as advocates and allies is [amplifying] the actual voices of people who are experiencing the sweeps, who are experiencing being unhoused,” said Hobgood. “There are unhoused folks who have really strong opinions and things they’d like to express. City Council meetings on Zoom are completely inaccessible if you don’t have access to the technology, so when we talk about the community [in regards to] who gets to weigh in, often it’s not actually the people who know the most and are the most impacted by what’s going on.”
Some of the pieces on exhibit convey a sense of being compared to and treated like weeds by the city — nuisances that ought to be pulled out and tossed away. Two illustrations — one in black-and-white and one in color — show an unhoused person sitting within a burrow made in the earth, a wildflower or a weed (depending on one’s perspective) sheltering them from above. The steam from their mug rises and feeds into a flowing river, a bulldozer at its embankment, an array of tents directly in the earth-moving machine’s path. Above, a large hand clenches the plant in a tight grip, pulling it and the person up by their roots.
“This has been a really important conversation to talk about with social service providers and activists in the community, but my priority is to hear from the folks who are being deeply impacted by this directly,” said Hobgood. “And I am committed to helping to amplify those voices and those conversations for a million reasons, but also because when people use a phrase like ‘the homeless,’ it’s because there’s no sense of humanness or personhood behind that. So what’s really powerful as a source of social change is when you know someone who is unhoused; you hear their story, you understand.”
Next to the colored illustration is a statement on the sweeps written by Sheena Hopkins, accompanied by a drawing of a wildflower. “The sweeps as they are called to me sound misleading. Sweeping implies that we are cleaning,” wrote Hopkins. “What they have during the sweeps is weeding! Once they clean out the flower bed they toss away the weeds. We leave things that are important, we lose everything we can not carry. Often only basic supplies. Some can carry nothing but there selfs [sic].”
Finding the Next Steps
“So many people are just one step away from potentially experiencing that kind of poverty,” said Hobgood. “Something that I think housed folks don’t understand is that when you are unhoused, often a lot of your day is just spent figuring out the most fundamental next steps.”
According to Hobgood, this can involve navigating challenges like, “Where can I wash my hands? How can I use the bathroom? Where can I do my laundry? Do I have any cash to do my washing? How am I going to get there? Do I have a mask to get on a bus? Can I leave my camp and assume that my stuff is going to be safe? What do I need to take with me? Who’s going to have my back if I do leave my things and try to go somewhere else to get something done?”
It’s an overwhelming way to live.
“On top of that,” said Hobgood, “in trying to make your way through the day, probably within the next two weeks you’re going to have to restart this entire scenario because someone’s going to come post your camp and then sweep you. It’s unconscionable.”
In one painting titled “2021 Sweeps: Feel What We Feel,” the artist depicts a tent nestled amongst trees and bushes, two people sitting and talking in front. Facing the tent is a Corvallis Parks and Recreation employee operating a bulldozer, informing the people that their camp has been posted. Text can be seen throughout the painting.
“For them it’s a job, for us it’s losing our belongings, we have to start over,” one of the lines reads. “Sometimes with nothing. Some of us lose pets as well.”
“This marginalized group of people are really a super diverse group of humans who have a lot of different kinds of wisdom and experiences,” said Hobgood. “And to be able to give folks who don’t understand homelessness access to those voices and people’s stories, I think, is really powerful.”
“Can the homeless be thrown away as weeds?” wrote Hopkins. “If you ask me a weed is just a wildflower, with a little help they can thrive as well.”
“We must stand together,” another line from the 2021 Sweeps painting reads. “Homeless people are still people. We have voices! Hear us.”
The display will remain up at the Book Bin, at 215 SW 4th St, Corvallis,until Sunday, Dec. 5.