Saneta Devuono-Powell: Rendering the Invisible Human

The Bay Area has been the center of many social movements that made the assertion, ‘I exist’.  These movements sought (and seek) to engage and disrupt power dynamics by making themselves visible and demanding recognition from the larger society.  From the Black Panther party, to gay rights, and the disability movements, an identity is forged from the demand to be seen. Visibility becomes an assertion of humanity, which is an exercise of power.

Currently the Bay Area is embroiled in a housing crisis, one that pits the middle class against the working poor and leaves many long-term residents who liked their communities tired and heartbroken.  The debates about housing echo earlier social movements as communities feel silenced or erased and seek new ways to make the statement “I exist.”

Unfortunately, in the midst of this crisis, those without houses do not exist.  There are few people that we are as willing to marginalize and ignore as blatantly as the homeless. Homelessness in the U.S. has surpassed the “epidemic” of the nineties, yet the homeless remain unacknowledged or dehumanized as they are pushed to margins of our cities and out of our imaginations, existing only as faint images in our peripheral vision.

Three years ago, as part of a research project, I began visiting homeless encampments in the area.  The encampments I visited and the residents I met changed how I saw my home and the marginal spaces I had not noticed around me.  I began to appreciate the tents that stood out under the freeway, because they too signaled an assertion of existence.

More recently Kike Arnal, an Oakland resident and photographer has been documenting these camps.  He calls the series “Home without a House” a title that feels very apt. Arnal does not speak for the people he is photographing, he simply shows that they exist, unromanticized and unequivocally human. The people in Arnal’s photos cannot be dismissed with the designation of homeless, a term that has come to mean expendable, preferred invisible and not residents or citizens like the rest of us.  They may not have houses, but they are part of communities, they are part of our community.  They are also struggling to exist and the homes they create are a reflection of that struggle.

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US veteran Ray in front of his tent next to the San Pablo Creek. City of San Pablo, Contra Costa. Image credit Kike Arnal.

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Zena and her cat. San Pablo Creek. City of San Pablo, Contra Costa. Image credit Kike Arnal.

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13 Year old Salena lives with her mother at the San Pablo Creek encampment. Image credit Kike Arnal.

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Homeless Rick photographed at his encampment of Richmond, next to I-80. Image credit Kike Arnal.

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Doug shaves in the morning in the encampment of the San Pablo Creek. City of San Pablo, Contra Costa. Image credit: Kike Arnal.

With these photos, those who do not think about the daily lives of our neighbors without houses, are forced to confront familiar aspects of home where we do not want to see them.  To me this is the power art can have. Art often redirects our attention where we did not intend it to go, where we may not want to go.  Artists have the capacity to shift our vision, allowing us to see what was previously hidden, obscured or ignored. I do not know how the housing crisis will play out, but I look at Arnal’s photos and feel that my fate is connected to the subjects in these photographs.


About the Contributor: Saneta Devuono-Powell is a proud mother, writer, and Oakland resident.  Formerly an experimental filmmaker turned lawyer, her current day job involves city planning and public health, and her passion is thinking creatively about how to tackle social injustice.  She now focuses that energy on preserving affordable housing in the Quixotean hope that the Oakland she loves will not disappear.