By Liz Montaquila
One year ago when Anthony Pira watched House Bill 3838 get rejected, a bill that would have provided funding for services for homeless youth, he vowed that the words “budget deficit” would not stop him from making a difference.
Today, Pira is making a difference for the homeless youth of Boston and Cambridge, Mass. in a big way. Thirty-five of Pira’s 3-by-4-and-a-half foot photographic portraits of local homeless youth currently grace the façade of 8 Brattle Street in Harvard Square. And now, Pira is working to complete his second installation of the project, created by the Boston Center for Social Intervention and part of the Outside In Project: “Creating Art to End Homelessness.”
Pira, a43-year-old artist and homeless activist, partnered with “Youth on Fire”, a drop-in center for homeless youth in Harvard Square, to take photos of the program’s members ranging from 18-24 years old. Youth on Fire started in 2000 in response to the growing number of homeless youth coming to the Harvard Square area.
“In the 13 years since we started, we’ve evolved to really meet our members needs,” said Ayala Livny, the program manager. “I think of what we do of having three main components,” she said., starting with the most basic services, supports, and opportunities for homeless youth.
The most important thing to remember when dealing with and developing solution models for homeless youth, Livny said, is that this is a special population that requires unique and different services than the adult population. This is because 18-24 year olds occupy a different developmental stage.
One of the things that Livny and her staff hears most often from members about their experience of being homeless is that it is also the experience of being invisible, or being ignored, dismissed, disregarded, and disrespected. Primarily, she said, members express a feeling of not mattering or not existing. “Our kids talk all the time about how degrading it can be to panhandle and just have people ignore you, not meet your eye, pretend you don’t exist, say terrible things to you…”
That’s where Pira’s project comes in. Livny said the project, like a lot of the work that is done at Youth on Fire, makes these young people visible, and magnifies their resilience and resourcefulness. Describing Pira’s work as “larger than life” and “beautiful” she said the project is extra special because it is truly community supported by the Business Association, and all the businesses in the area who donate food and services
“These young folks are being celebrated by a community that often ignores them, and there’s something really transformative and really powerful about that opportunity and that experience. “
Before photographing each member of Youth on Fire who participated in the project, Pira saidhe would spend about an hour with them, getting to know them and really learning about their experiences of being homeless.
“To hear their stories and to relive what they’ve been through have been really overwhelming. To hear what they’ve gone through at shelters, and to hear what its like to sleep on the streets has been just amazing.”
One Youth on Fire member who knows what it is like to sleep on the street all too well is 19-year-old Katie (who asked to be identified only by her first name). Katie has been on and off the streets since she was 12 years old when she says she was kicked out of her mom’s house.
“My mom is a coke addict and my dad is abusive. My mom is abusive too. Like my dad used to beat the [expletive] out of me as a kid” she said. “It’s always been like very, a hostile environment. If I’m home I’m not safe and if I’m not home I feel safe even though I’m put in risky situations. “
Katie says Youth on Fire has not only been savior for her over the years as she has been in and out of homelessness, but that it has given others like her food and a hot shower when no one else and no other programs had. “If feel like its like… it’s a second chance”
The second installation of Pira’s project will go up in Harvard Square on May 4th. He hopes that his images would provide a greater understanding about what it means to be homeless. By challenging some of the stereotypes of homelessness he wants people to begin to realize that not every homeless person is what they thought, and that we need to do something about homelessness in America.
“I would hope that as these images go up again, now in our second installation, I would hope that more and more people would start to understand what homelessness is, would start to step outside of the stereotypes, and start to realize that not every homeless person is what they thought it was, and that we need to do something about homelessness in America.
“My purpose as an artist is to use photography as a tool, to use the images as a vehicle in which to open up discussions for sustainable housing for these young adults” said Pira, “in the city of Cambridge, in Massachusetts, and throughout the country. “