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Culture Watch: “Inocente”: A Young Artist’s Journey Through Homelessness

September 11, 2013

Inocente paints her face in detailed, colorful designs every morning. It helps her start the day with fresh hope, and is a ritual that provides a sense of stability in an otherwise unstable world. Photo by Sean Fine.

Written by Perry Firth, graduate student, Seattle University Community Counseling, and project assistant, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

The bright colors coating her fingers match the colors on the canvas. Inocente is swirling the paint in sweeping, confident strokes.

Slowly, a world is taking shape. The white of the canvas is disappearing behind vibrant greens, electric blues, and bubble-gum pinks.

And this world, like the others she has painted, has a story.

That part is important.

“It’s not just a painting,” she tells us. “People should know there’s a story.”

For all their vim, Inocente’s paintings are rooted in the hardship of homelessness, memories of childhood abuse, and the alienation inherent in belonging to a family whose illegal immigration and undocumented status prohibit an easy entry to the American Dream. 

Inocente,” directed by  Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, is the Academy Award-winning documentary short that chronicles the life of 15-year-old Inocente as she uses art as a way to cope with her family’s homelessness in San Diego, Calif.

It captures Inocente at moment in her life when everything is about to change –– not only is she moving out of her mother’s care and into a homeless shelter for teens, but she is preparing for her first art exhibition, facilitated by the arts mentorship program A Reason To Survive (ARTS).

For the first time, her paintings and the dreams that have created them will be available for public viewing. 

Here you see a still from the film of Inocente working on one of her paintings. Notice the bright colors and fantastical creations. Inocente says that if people knew her story “they would probably think that I should be painting...dark paintings.” Instead she does the exact opposite. Image by Sean Fine.

Wise but young, tough but a dreamer

Inocente is soft-spoken and radiates a dreamy quality. It is clear she has a powerful and rich imagination, one that has enabled her to escape the bleak realities of homelessness and create her art. She comes across as both wise and young, clearly 15 yet in possession of enough fortitude that it is easy to believe her story will have a happy ending.

What is maybe less immediately apparent, lost in the colors of her paintings and the innocence of her self presentation, is that she is tough.

You have to be, if you are going to survive the exhaustion that comes with homelessness and the memories of childhood domestic violence that brought you there.

The reality is that the day-to-day life of someone who is homeless is a test of endurance. It can be a constant battle to find a place to live, enough food to eat, and people with whom you feel safe. Physical and mental exhaustion are not abstract concepts -- they are daily companions.

Now imagine living that life as a 15-year-old girl, while also attending high school. Imagine doing that while having the courage to paint, to believe in yourself, and to ask for help.

Yes, Inocente is tough. 

Homelessness for teens in America

Unfortunately, however, Inocente and her family’s struggle with homelessness, and the domestic violence that caused it, are not uncommon. Domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness for women and children. Inocente’s mother is not the first woman to make the decision to leave a violent home only to find herself navigating the tough world of the streets.

And for all of her individual resilience, there are many other teens who are less able to overcome the hardship of homelessness. 

Inocente says that her goal of becoming an artist has been helping her cope with the adversity in her life. She has been making art since she was a little girl. Photo by Sean Fine. 

Inocente had the ARTS program, a safe place to go where she could hone her skills. What about those young people without the good fortune to find their way to a mentorship program?

The truth is that there are 1.5 million homeless children living in America today. In King County alone, 5,000+ school-aged children were reported as homeless in the 2011-2012 school year. Like Inocente, 32 percent were in high school.

Also like Inocente, many of these homeless children are in homeless families who have fallen on hard times.

Compounding the situation faced by these homeless families -- whether their homelessness is caused by domestic violence, medical bills, job loss or lack of affordable housing -- is that family homelessness is often invisible. When society thinks about homelessness, they just don’t think about families. Chronic individual and teen homelessness tends to be more visible. In turn, this means that money, shelters, and services are less likely to be geared toward family needs.

So, the average person has no idea that in Washington state there are more than 27,000 school-age youth who, like Inocente and her family, are homeless – and potentially forced to sleep outside, in garages, and in cars.

If they are lucky, they get to double up with friends and family. 

Maybe a happy ending for others, too?

The good news in conversations around family and youth homelessness is this:

Washington state and King County are now leading the way in addressing homelessness among families and youth. King County has a new coordinated entry system designed to move families into stable housing more quickly, and is working hard to ensure that families are not on the streets for long.

• The U.S. Interagency Council (USICH) selected King County and Washington state as one of nine locations to participate in a national pilot earlier this year to collect data on youth homelessness.

• King County has just launched the first coordinated entry program for homeless youth, Youth Housing Connection, in July 2013.

• The county’s long-term comprehensive plan to end youth and young adult homelessness by 2020, developed in partnership with providers, the city of Seattle, the United Way of King County, funders and youth and young adults, is on track for completion in the fall of 2013.

Considering that the 2013 "Count Us In" point-in-time count of youth and young adult homelessness revealed that King County’s streets alone are home to nearly 800 young people on any given night, these efforts are not a moment too soon.

Here is an image of someone who has been forced to sleep on the sidewalk, without any shelter. If this is a teenager, what do you think are the chances he or she is able to excel in school? Would you be able to sleep here without the sense of security provided by four walls, a roof, and a locking door? Photo from istockphoto.com

These youth, much like Inocente, are trying every day to rise above homelessness, just as their parents are trying to hold it together for their children while sleeping in cars, shelters and sofas.

Ultimately, this is what makes Inocente’s story of homelessness so powerful. She is unique, but her homelessness isn’t.

What you can do 

If you have been inspired by Inocente’s story and would like to learn more about local efforts to use art as a way through adversity, then come to “An Evening with Inocente,” presented by Seattle University in partnership with the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) and Sanctuary Art Center Friday, Sept. 27, 2013 from 6 to 8:15 p.m.

The event begins at 6 pm with an arts activity in SAM's lobby for youth ages 12 to 25, facilitated by Inocente and Sanctuary Art Center youth.

The film then begins at 6:45 pm, and is followed by a Q&A with Inocente and arts mentors Matt D’Arrigo from A Reason to Survive (ARTS) in San Diego; Troy Carter from Sanctuary Art Center in Seattle’s University District; and moderator Sandra Jackson Dumont from Seattle Art Museum.

From 8:30 to 10 pm there will be a private reception for film ticket holders at cmd+p in Pioneer Square at 201 Yesler Way, Suite 200, Seattle. Here you will be able to not only meet Inocente, but also see and buy her art and the art of youth who participate in Sanctuary Art Center’s programs.

Tickets are are sale now; general admission is $5. To purchase tickets go here.

All ticket sales will benefit Sanctuary Arts Center’s programs for homeless youth and young adults.

More you can do:

  • Download “Inocente” from iTunes, or arrange a screening for your group.
  • Like “Inocente” on Facebook and follow the film on Twitter.
  • Learn more about domestic violence and its role in family homelessness on the Firesteel blog in October.
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