For all the attention homelessness gets in the news, actual homeless people live life in the city’s margins, rarely seen in the same way as their housed neighbors.
People avoid eye contact with the panhandler on the street and sit far away from the person napping in the library. With no homes to retreat to, homeless residents are some of Aurora’s keenest observers. But they are rarely noticed the same way in return. A new exhibit at the Aurora History Museum seeks to change that, portraying people living without homes in Aurora as individuals worthy of attention and respect.
“Without a Home in Aurora” opened in December and will run through the end of May. The exhibit discusses housing insecurity in Aurora through the stories of individual Aurorans who are living on the streets, in shelters and in motels.
Housing insecurity has become a major problem in Aurora as housing and rental prices in the city and surrounding Denver metro area continue to soar. Not even the pandemic put a dent in the housing boom. According to the Colorado Association of Realtors the median sale price of a single family home in the state was $532,800 in November, an 18.5% increase from the same time last year. Apartment List reports that the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Aurora has reached a high of $1,556.
The skyrocketing prices make it harder and harder for the city’s working-class residents to afford a place to live, leaving some of them with nowhere to go.
“The number one reason people lose their housing and are living in their cars, they tell us, is the cost of housing,” Cheryl Baker-Hauck told the Sentinel in December. “They just can’t find something affordable.”
Baker-Hauck is co-founder of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative, a nonprofit that works with community partners to give people a safe place to sleep in their cars. Contrary to popular misconception, “homelessness” means more than just people who are sleeping on the streets or in encampments — it also includes people who are living out of their cars, in shelters, in motels or hotels and people who are living temporarily with friends or family without a permanent address of their own.
The total number of homeless residents in Aurora is unknown. As of last summer there were 480 estimated Aurorans without a home, but that is likely to significantly undercount people who are living in their car or couchsurfing. Sleeping in a car or on someone’s couch is less harrowing than sleeping on the street, but any experience of homelessness is profoundly destabilizing.
The exhibit uses an oral history format to tell some of those stories, pairing portraits and other photographs with interviews of over 20 homeless Aurorans.
One is the mother of a young woman who took her own life six years after surviving the Columbine High School shooting. Another is a man who got an apartment after being homeless for 20 years, and was recently discharged from the hospital after becoming seriously ill with COVID. One woman won the lottery in Arizona but lost the money after relapsing on drugs. One man who participated, Sunny, died shortly after being interviewed.
Each peels back the anonymity that the unhoused are so often reduced to, and belies the idea that there are any simple answers for why people become homeless. Many included messages of what they wanted museum visitors to know about homelessness.
“The homeless can be reached,” a man named Mike said. “A few touches can make a big difference in the aspects of their lives.”
Local photographer Amy Forestieri provided the black and white portraits and photo collages that line the exhibit’s walls. Forestieri got into photography after a 20-year career in the military, and has been volunteering with the local homeless community for a number of years, where she would also take people’s portraits. She believes in forming a connection with every person she photographs, something that many street photographers don’t do.
“I feel like you have to earn people’s trust,” she said. “Earn the right to take their picture, to tell their story.”
She is careful with which pictures of homeless people she publishes, but has given out hundreds of prints to her subjects, which she said they cherish.
“I’ve never found one in the trash,” she said. “I’ll visit people months or years later and they still have them hanging in their motel rooms.”
Forestieri said some people have made “snarky comments” about why an exhibit about homelessness is necessary, or why she felt the need to portray people who are in such difficult conditions. She hopes that people who are skeptical will take time to see the exhibit for themselves.
“The messages are very inspiring,” she said. “And if people go, I think they’ll understand the value in why we did this.”
For a period of time as a teenager, Forestieri said that she herself was homeless, living in her car or with friends. She doesn’t see value, or kindness, in keeping eyes averted from the least fortunate members of our community.
“Too many people ignore people who are unsheltered, or they think that looking away is respectful,” she said. “But for me, that just pretends that they’re not valuable. And they are part of the fabric of our community and they have powerful statements and wisdom.”
If you go:
Aurora History Museum | 15051 E. Alameda Parkway
Exhibit open through May 29, 2022 | Tuesday-Friday 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Free admission, must register in advance at www.auroragov.org/things_to_do/aurora_history_museum
Masks must be worn inside museum