The face of homelessness

Image of open woods with a clothes line and two towels hanging from it.Photo by Linda Levinson.

Photography exhibit captures final days of La Crosse’s Tent City

As La Crosse’s former Tent City came down, several people were at the homeless encampment — capturing its history.

Through photos and interviews, members of La Crosse’s Homelessness and Art Committee documented the people and place in its final days on the banks of the Mississippi River in La Crosse. La Crosse’s Collaborative to End Homelessness, along with the City of La Crosse and many partner agencies worked to dismantle Tent City in an effort to end homelessness in summer 2017.

Now an exhibit of those photos, as well as paintings and kites made by two formerly homeless people, will be on display at the La Crosse County Administrative Building through Saturday, June16. The exhibit is free. A reception is planned from 4:30-6 p.m. Friday, April 27, at the La Crosse County Administrative Building, 212 6th St. N., La Crosse.

Linda Levinson, UW-La Crosse associate professor of art, and Art Karbowski, Western Technical College welding instructor and artist, took the photos. Matt Cashion, UWL professor of English, interviewed people living in Tent City.

“Photography is an art of vestiges; it is sensitive to departures and to the ghosts of the waning present and of the presence of absence,” writes Levinson in her artist statement. “I gathered up the images that the bulldozers could not efface.”

From the perspective of Couleecap, an agency that provides housing and supports those moving out of homelessness, the exhibit is an opportunity to challenge stereotypes, says Kim Cable, director of the Housing & Community Services Department for Couleecap.

“This exhibit allows those who have experienced homelessness an opportunity to express themselves in a way that brings value and understanding to their experiences as people — not as people who are homeless, but as people who have had real life experiences that shape how they express themselves,” explains Cable.

Image of an empty birdhouse in a wooded area. Behind it are several tents in Tent City.

Photo by Linda Levinson

The idea to document the takedown of Tent City came from a La Crosse Homelessness and Art Committee, which formed in spring 2017. The group aims to increase awareness of homelessness in the city, something most residents see only from their car window, says Barry McKnight, chair of the committee. “This exhibit really puts a more personal face on this issue,” he says.

During his interviews, Cashion heard many personal stories that shatter the stereotypes culture frequently applies to the homeless. “These were stories revealing the intelligence and dignity of people who are eager to help themselves and to contribute to their communities,” says Cashion. “There are many unheard stories still to tell.”

Image of the inside of a tent with the shadows of trees outside visible on the walls.

Photo by Linda Levinson.

The committee also wants to provide another outlet for art and culture for people who are currently homeless or have experienced it in the past, says Ariel Beaujot, UWL associate professor of history who was the driving force in forming the committee.

“Those who have experienced or are experiencing homelessness hold a common humanity with everyone else in the city,” says Beaujot. “We should not only be providing food, shelter, warmth — the base needs for people who are struggling, but also provide ways for all people to express themselves and get that expression out to the rest of the community if they wish to do so.”

The Homelessness and Art Committee includes people from various groups and organizations including, UWL, the La Crosse Public Library, La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness, Western Technical College and the City of La Crosse Arts Board.

Image of a tent pitched in the tall grass in a wooded area.

Photo by Linda Levinson.

“Good-bye Tent City”

Linda Levinson artist statement

In the summer of 2017, Kim Cable, Housing and Community Services Director of
Couleecap asked Art Karbowski and me to document the last days of “Tent City.”
The homeless community that had been active since 2010 on the bank of the
Mississippi was about to be dismantled. I agreed, even though I had never
documented anyone’s home, or anyone that was “homeless”. I was inexperienced in
that aspect of my art because I felt I did not know how to approach the content
without exploiting it. Nevertheless, I decided I would try to get at least some images
of the site for Kim before the city removed it. I would go with no expectations, aware
this would not be an in-depth investigation. Consequently, I photographed it three
times.

The first time I met neighborhood resource police officer Joel Miller with my
colleagues Art Karbowski and Matthew Cashion at the entrance of “Tent City.”
Officer Miller has been working with this community for years; he had a relationship
with many of the residents. Most of the tents and residents were gone by that time.
It was a scene of upheaval: belongings scattered all over the ground, such as one
would encounter after someone moved from living in one place to another. Some
residents were lingering around.They allowed me to photograph them and even to
get to know them a little.

The second time I photographed my eye caught the irony of “living on the edge”
quite literally. I noticed the sightseeing and leisure boats that travel up and down
the Mississippi and, geographically speaking, the river’s edge that flooded over the
riverbank into the space where these people had hoped they might live.

My third visit was on “The Last Day of Tent City”. Volunteers had come to help
some people transition out; the city workers were there to clean up, but they
respectfully saved the dismantled tents and items they found there, in case someone
might need them later. Bulldozers pushed away massive amounts of trash. It felt
eerie witnessing the total removal of every trace of human presence. The tents that
were there one day were gone the next. Then I understood my role. Photography is
an art of vestiges; it is sensitive to departures and to the ghosts of the waning
present and of the presence of absence. I gathered up the images that the bulldozers
could not efface.