Jo Jackson is working this sunny late spring afternoon on a series of small watercolors. “I like to build colors,” Jackson says. “I’m making a sun shape first, so that’s just an easy circular motion that’s so relaxing for me, then I get very bold and add a bright red.”
Jackson is a thin white woman, often bundled in a sweater and scarf. For years, she taught dance in Bolivia and Venezuela. But a series of personal setbacks over the past few years left her living in a San Francisco single room occupancy hotel (SRO), and then in a numbered bunk bed in a Tenderloin women’s shelter.
Jackson especially likes making collages and working with paints. Art, Jackson says, is both a form of expression and a kind of therapy. "Art for me is like water, like a river," she says. "And water is very life giving and healing."
Jackson values the free art studio provided by Hospitality House. The homeless services provider is located in the mid-Market neighborhood near 6th Street, a fast gentrifying part of the city.
It's a busy place. As Jackson works on her painting, more than dozen artists, most in living situations like Jackson's, sketch with pastels or paint with acrylics. A pottery wheel sits against a wall in the studio, next to racks of paper and other supplies.
Hospitality House has served the homeless for nearly 50 years. The facility offers a men’s shelter, leadership development workshops, and job training programs. It also offers the only fine arts studio for the homeless in San Francisco, with more than 3,500 people using the space each year.
How art helps homeless people
When you're lacking the basics of food and shelter, art might not seem like a priority. Yet visitors to Hospitality House consider the creative offerings essential to their existence. “The opportunity to create should be open to everyone, whether you have a home or not," says Hospitality House executive director Jackie Jenks.
Jackson, together with fellow Hospitality House artist Billy Crawford, recently had an art opening at the space. They're showing their work at Hospitality House through Friday, Jul. 22. Jackson has sold a few paintings, she says. And all the artists gets 100 percent of the proceeds from sales of their work. Jenks says Hospitality House artists made $16,000 last year.
Art has been an essential service for Hospitality House since 1969, two years after its founding. “The walls can really seem to close in on you in an SRO or a shelter,” Jenks says. “But here, they’re sharing the beauty of what they can create and what’s in their hearts.”
A common vision
Hospitality House isn't the only organization in the neighborhood that offers opportunities for homeless people to tap into their creative selves. Jackson is also a frequent visitor at The Healing Well, an offshoot of the street ministry called Faithful Fools. The two organizations share a narrow and cozy building on Hyde Street on the edge of the Tenderloin, where they offer free poetry, yoga, meditation, and clowning classes.
“When I first got involved in this work, I thought, you’ve got to be kidding,” says Kathy Curran, Healing Well’s founder and director.
“We’re offering classes like yoga and meditation, and art and poetry. Shouldn’t we be helping these people find housing and get jobs?"
But Curran soon saw the value of Healing Well's offerings. "I quickly realized how important it is for people to have a place where they can develop a sense of calm and confidence in coping with the trials of the past and the opportunities of the future," she says.
Back at Hospitality House, Jackson puts her paintbrush in a cup of water. Jackson has found temporary housing for the next three months. She says should be okay, as long as she can continue to make art. "Homelessness isn’t who I am," Jackson says. "It happens to be something I’m going through right now."