(RERUN): What do homeless people think of public art?

Homeless statue GigCity EdmontonHomeless people might have more important things to worry about than what they think of public art in Edmonton, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have opinions about it, or that their opinions aren’t as valid someone who isn’t homeless. Besides, they see it every day. They live here.

During three days in the summer of 2013, I interviewed a number of area street people who were so sharp that the question should’ve been: “Why are you homeless?” The stories vary: Poverty, hard luck, mental illness, choice, and for most in this situation, every day is a challenge to survive. But it’s a tight-knit community. Everyone knows each other, on a first name basis, held together with mutual respect and dignity; the only difference is that they go about their daily lives, the beautiful and the ugly like everyone, in full view of the public. Homeless people don’t have much, but they have their pride – and they don’t need some idiot with a tape recorder coming into their community asking stupid questions, “Excuse me, you look homeless, what do you think of the aesthetic qualities and social implications of Isla Burns’ stainless steel canoe sculpture Caravel in front of City Hall?”

Turns out that most of them are happy to respond. Maybe it’s because no one’s has ever bothered to ask them before. Not only did most of them know exactly which piece of downtown artwork they were being asked about, but they have some pretty strong opinions about it, too.

Homeless GigCity EdmontonJoan, who gets around with a walker, is one of several aboriginal people who praise the Round Dance mural (107 Avenue and 95 Street), depicting legendary homeless advocate Hope Hunter as part of the Giants of Edmonton series. Forty six percent of Edmonton’s homeless people are aboriginal, according to a 2012 count by Homeward Trust Edmonton, a not-for-profit organization that fights homelessness. The Bissell Centre has an aboriginal mural on its side. Of Hope Hunter, Joan says, “She worked for years at the Boyle Street Co-op. She’s done a lot for us people … And I like the inukshuk with the little boy that saved the pilot, because I’m from the Northwest Territories, and I can feel for what the little kid had to go through. I know the history.”

Up 96 Street near the Mustard Seed Church, a man named Lorne talks about murals, “I like to look at murals. They should be doing that on a lot of buildings. That Lois Hole painting, I remember looking at that a couple of times. That’s a nice one. I’m not much into art, but I notice big murals.”

One of the most contentious pieces of public art in the inner city is known as The Homeless Statue. Located near the CN Tower, the $40,000 memorial sculpture depicts a wretched figure huddled in a doorway. Edmonton anti-poverty crusader Jim Gurnett, who spearheaded the project with sculptors Keith Turnbull and Ritchie Velthius, said it is meant “to remind Edmontonians always about our shared responsibility to end homelessness.”

Homeless people don’t like it.

“That one seems very, very cold,” says a young homeless man named Trevor. “It’d be cold sitting there like that.” Vance, an older man who has been able to maintain a roof over his head but hangs out in the inner city every day to be with his “bros,” says, “Why would you make something for the homeless like that? You should make some houses instead of putting up a fucking statue.”

The issue that that art money could be better spent elsewhere comes up a few times. Like most Edmontonians, several street people complain about the $600,000 spent on the Talus Dome. Actually, almost every citizen complains about that.

It has been estimated that each homeless person costs about $100,000 a year to manage, counting accommodations, food, clothing, health care and various programs. There are 2,174 individuals “identified as being homeless” in Edmonton, according to that 2012 Homeward Trust study (about a third less than the 2008 homeless count). In an Edmonton Journal story, Edmonton East MP Peter Goldring claimed the 100 grand figure is inflated, but even if it were half, not only would it be enough to easily sustain an individual, but the sum would still dwarf the amount spent on public art.

An aboriginal woman who gives her name as Sugar is in a sunny mood when approached one morning. She says she has no problem with public money being spent on public art, and of all the murals, sculptures, installations, gardens and graffiti walls in this area, says with a big smile, “They make me feel good.”

That has to count for something.

(The original version of this story was published in September, 2013)