Former Philadelphia Eagles player, Jason Avant, makes a surprise visit to Our Brothers’ Place to hand out team-branded coats to shelter guests.
Andrew Huff is the Case Manager of Bethesda Project’s Church Shelter Programs—this article was originally published in the Friends Journal—click here to read the original article.
I work in an emergency shelter for chronically homeless men in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Upon admission to the shelter, each guest receives one 23-gallon bin to store all of his belongings. Due to space and budget constraints, we can only provide one bin to each guest. Regardless of personal status, length of stay in the program, or attitude, “one bin” really does mean one bin. In order to minimize opportunities for theft, clutter, and infestations, any belongings outside the bins are discarded. A few of the men have friends or relatives to hold some of their belongings. A few manage to pay or bargain for a small storage unit. One or two simply hide things in the alleyways. Most, however, are in the position of editing their lives down to fit into a single bin: life in a box, with the lid shut.
My position at the shelter was my first full-time, paid job. It came immediately after a year of living simply and intentionally as part of Quaker Voluntary Service (QVS). I was stably housed; I also had the ability to accumulate goods—behold my ever-expanding box, with its lid that never has to shut! Consumer culture gave me permission to believe that. But I began to wonder: If I were confronted with the same circumstances as our shelter guests, could I make life fit into a single box? What meaning is there in the discrepancy between the one-bin policy inside our shelter and the mass-consumption orgy outside? In considering these and other queries, I decided to pose myself a “one-bin challenge.”
As I settled into my intention to take the challenge, I thought back to the many hours my QVS cohort spent inquiring into the testimony of simplicity. The complexity and privilege involved made it by far the thorniest subject for us. We discussed how simplicity differs from austerity, and whether the testimony applies only to material goods or to experiences as well. We debated whether an abundant, diversely stocked pantry could be in alignment with simplicity. We questioned the ethics of following a simple diet, which because of its simplicity verged on being unhealthy. We asked ourselves whether simplicity lost value if the act of downsizing also involved creating waste. We struggled with the dynamic between simplicity and class, noting that for many in our communities “simplicity” is involuntary poverty. Some embraced a year of living simply as a chance for creative frugality; others were deeply offended by the expectation of minimizing their consumption; others were hurt by the notion of “playing poor” for a year.
Simplicity, possession, and class—they all touched a nerve because they all speak to what it means to have power in the world, power in your own world. These same factors unite in the experience of homelessness, perhaps one of the most humiliating and disempowering experiences in our society. A one-bin challenge could not give me the ability to comprehend what our shelter guests experience. But it could help me get closer to it and to them. I wanted to try holding myself to the same standard as our guests, to see whether the one-bin policy still seemed fair after experiencing it myself. Beyond whether it was fair, I also wanted to know whether or not it was decent to hold someone to that standard. I wanted to better understand what the process of fitting life into a 23-gallon bin entails psychologically. Materially, I wanted to review all of my current possessions and keep only those that were the most vital. I wanted to see how much stuff I had lying around, cluttering my space and my mind, simply out of habit or an unexamined belief that I needed it (or would “someday”).
As I completed my one-bin challenge over the course of two months during the winter of 2018, here is what I learned:
Yes, it is possible to fit the most essential possessions of daily life into a single 23-gallon bin, but it takes effort and creativity as well as disposable income or access to high-quality donations. I took direction from the other shelter guests here. During the course of my challenge, I spoke with them and asked about their bins. I saw that some had fit life into the bin quite practically, without sacrificing basic needs. Their bins contained (for example): multipurpose, adaptable clothing that can be layered and worn in all seasons; one pair of sneakers and shower sandals; a compressible sleeping bag; travel-size toiletries; and a thumb-drive for personal documents scanned at the library. Every item was necessary, purposefully chosen, and cared for. I followed these guests’ thoughtfulness and practicality in reviewing my own possessions. Items that were unnecessary, duplicates, or which only had sentimental value were donated or discarded.
I also determined that yes, it is fair and decent to have a standard of one bin per person for all belongings, at least in an emergency situation such as the one a homeless shelter responds to. During the course of my personal one-bin challenge, many of the shelter guests slowly and imperceptibly accumulated items outside their bins, leading first to the appearance of mice, then to an outbreak of bed bugs. Both situations were uncomfortable, expensive, and stressful. Guests and staff agreed that for the sake of public health and peace of mind, restrictions on personal possessions were appropriate.
I also concluded that for someone who is stably housed, a one-bin challenge is a lighthearted project in simpler living. For some, it can be a chance to make more room for that of God in our lives. For someone living in emergency shelter, though, it is a stressful and at times traumatic project in emergency living. It can be hard to notice that of God when “simplicity” is accompanied by not having control over your next meal, shower, chance to launder, and not knowing when (or whether) you’ll exit the shelter system. When you have a home, a bin is just a bin: plastic, replaceable, unremarkable. When you have no home, a bin may be the container for all that remains of you.
The closer I arrived at being able to fit my belongings into the dimensions of a single bin, the more clearly I saw this context. I also realized that, to some extent, the bin itself was a distraction from a deeper truth.
I began to think about all the things that cannot fit into a bin—a bed, a desk, a college education—and also the most crucial things we need in order to thrive and self-actualize: clean, stable, dignified housing; a secure supply of nutritious food and water; community and loving connection; God, Light, or Spirit. When we focus on the bin, we forget these things.
I then started to reflect on why our one-bin policy exists. It exists in response to space constraints, budget limitations, and public health concerns. But it’s important to recognize that these constraints, limitations, and concerns are situated in an emergency shelter. This shelter exists because there is a homelessness crisis, one that is critical enough that there are people who are chronically homeless. The homelessness crisis exists because of social, legal, and economic policies that have created a housing crisis. Those who can afford housing have it; those who can’t, simply don’t. These policies exist because of a certain cultural perception of what housing is and who deserves it. Those who can afford housing deserve it; those who can’t, simply don’t. Beneath this perception is the belief that in the United States, God’s will is for only some of us to be housed. As for the rest, there’s the shelter downtown and a 23-gallon bin.
It’s not about what’s inside the bin. It’s about everything outside it.
It’s about who we are in the space outside it: how we discern God’s will and how we live into that will as a society.
God’s will is not that all the guests inside our shelter accomplish the task of editing their lives down to fit into a single bin. God’s will is that we on the outside resolve the housing crisis so that there is no need for such a thing as a one-bin challenge.
Now that, Friends, is a challenge worth accepting.
ARTIST WILLIAM KOSMAN WILL CONTRIBUTE HIS PROCEEDS FROM EXHIBITION “HOPE FOR THE HOMELESS” TO BETHESDA PROJECT
PHILADELPHIA, PA – SEPTEMBER, 2018 – Philadelphia painter William Kosman will exhibit 23 paintings of Philadelphia and Normandy, France, in the exhibit “Hope for the Homeless.”
This exhibit will be up at the Manayunk Roxborough Art Center (MRAC) located at 419 Green Lane (rear), Philadelphia, PA 19128. The opening reception is on Sunday, Oct. 7 from 12pm to 3pm. The gallery will then be open Saturday and Sunday Oct. 13 and 14 from 11am to 3pm. In November, the exhibit will move to the RoxArt Gallery, located at 6111 Ridge Avenue, with an opening reception on Nov. 2 from 5pm to 7pm and weekday hours from 10am to 6pm.
Kosman will contribute all his proceeds from the exhibit to Bethesda Project, a Philadelphia homeless services nonprofit that has provided support, shelter and housing for thousands of individuals experiencing homelessness since 1979.
In the past, Kosman has donated paintings to raise money for the Alliance Francaise of Philadelphia, the French International School of Philadelphia, and the North City Congress. The contribution to the North City Congress also included the works of seven other artists, in a program sponsored by the Philadelphia Sketch Club.
“I’m surely not alone as an artist to use my art to do good for community causes,” said Kosman, “and I salute other artists who do the same thing. I’m constantly struck by how wonderful it is that art can give people pleasure, expand their ideas and support those in need.”
“It is such a gift for us to get involved with an artist like Bill,” remarks Tina Pagotto, Bethesda Project CEO. “At Bethesda Project, we feel that homelessness is a community issue, and community issues require community responses. Bill Kosman is a wonderful example of someone who is using what he has to support the vulnerable populations around him while raising awareness for an area of need in our city. We are so grateful for this new partnership!”
For the most part, Kosman’s brightly-colored oils on canvas represent the streets and people of Philadelphia, and the fields, roadways and beaches of Normandy. The “Hope for the Homeless” exhibit also includes several large works from his “Hope at K and A” (Kensington and Allegheny) series.
“MRAC welcomes the opportunity to partner with Bethesda Project through the generous initiative of Bill Kosman, one of our talented visual artists,” says Ron Howard, President of the MRAC. “We look forward to a successful fundraising event that will both recognize and benefit the homeless.”
“While I don’t label my paintings ‘theme paintings,’ I want my work to reflect the beauty of nature,” Kosman reflects. “The Normandy landscapes and the urban scenes show just how well people of all ethnic groups can get along and be enriched each other’s lives.”
More about William Kosman, Painter: William Kosman has exhibited in several Philadelphia venues, including the Show of Hands gallery, the Alliance Francaise, the Woodmere Art Museum, the former ArtWorks at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Sketch Club and the Old City Jewish Art Center. His works grace the homes of families on the East and West coasts of the United States and in France. Kosman also creates rap videos that utilize his paintings. Among many courses and workshops, Kosman studied at the Art Students’ League in New York, the Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia, and with Jean-Marie Creuseau, in Fresnes, France. Kosman has received recognition for his work. From the Fleisher Art Memorial he received, among other awards the coveted Fred and Naomi Hazell Award for both 2006 and 2007. And he was granted membership in La Confrerie des Chivaliers de la Baleine (The Fraternity of the Knights of the Whale) from the city Luc-sur-Mer, France, for his promotion of the beauty of France’s Cote de Nacre through his paintings and the city’s art competition “Luc en Peinture.” Kosman’s work can be viewed at: www.williamkosman.blogspot.com and www.williamkosman.com, and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and 215-280-9580. His rap videos can be viewed at www.youtube.com/billkosman
About Bethesda Project: Since 1979, Bethesda Project has been providing emergency shelter, housing and supportive services for thousands of individuals experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia. By offering a home and safe environment at each of its 14 sites throughout the city, men and women experiencing homelessness can stabilize and regain their dignity and self-worth. From outreach and shelters to permanent housing and supportive services, its locations create a Housing First continuum of care for Philadelphia’s chronically homeless. At Bethesda Project, caregivers meet men and women where they are, providing case management to help them achieve their highest personal potential. Now, 39 years since its inception, Bethesda Project remains committed to its initial calling — to find and care for the abandoned poor and to be family with those who have none. To learn more, go to www.bethesdaproject.org
About the Manayunk Roxborough Art Center: Our mission is to develop an appreciation of the arts, literary expression and related cultural endeavors. We are committed to revealing and fostering the visual, spoken and performance arts in both the local and regional communities. Our goal is to provide a meeting place for the artistic community and to connect those engaged in creative endeavors with one another and the general public. Our vision statement is, ‘Artists bringing people together.” The Manayunk Roxborough Art Center is supported in part by a grant from the Philadelphia cultural fund.