Middle schoolers create art for micro shelter residents in months-long project

John Marshall, a pastor at Salem’s Church at the Park, said local middle school students have had a conversation over the past four months that he never heard in 12 years of Salem-Keizer public education. 

He said Howard Street Charter School has encouraged students to think critically about what it means to be human and empathize with people who are suffering. Students spent each Wednesday morning since Jan. 19 creating artwork to hang inside micro shelters in Salem that help people transition out of homelessness.

The project, titled “Making a House a Home,” was intended to help students understand the impact of a welcoming home on a person’s sense of belonging, said Robert Salberg, a theater arts teacher who came up with the idea.

The art will be on display at the Salem Art Association Bush Barn Art Center until June 5, when it will be donated to Church at the Park, a nonprofit organization contracted with the city to operate micro shelter villages in Salem. 

Matthew Boulay, executive director of the Salem Art Center, speaks at a reception on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, showcasing the “Making a House a Home” art exhibit in the Bush Barn Art Center.

The exhibit also includes art created by homeless artists through Salem for All and Northwest Human Services, Salberg said.

Micro shelters have been part of a years-long effort by city officials and Church at the Park to help homeless people in Salem transition into stable housing and employment.

“It’s literally the first step off of the street for people who have no other sheltering options,” Marshall told a crowd at a reception May 4 showcasing the art in the Bush Barn Art Center.

He said Howard Street Charter School invited Church at the Park, which operates the shelters, to be part of the effort.

The art will be hung up in the 8-foot-by-8-foot-buildings at two micro shelter villages in Salem: Village of Hope at 2640 Portland Rd. N.E, which recently doubled its capacity to serve 80 people, and a family shelter site at the Catholic Community Services property on Northeast Portland Road, Marshall told Salem Reporter.

He said Church at the Park will offer the art as a way to help residents feel the micro shelters belong to them and convey that they are human beings worth the dignity of having a home.

“I cannot tell you how dignifying it is to be able to offer something like that,” he said at the reception. “You give physical representations that there are human beings in the world who see you, who believe that you are worth their time and their attention, who are willing to engage in a months-long project for you. That is a message that does not get communicated to the population experiencing homelessness.”

Christina Tracy, teaching principal at Howard Street, said at the reception that students are now making “3D artwork” such as clay bowls and mandalas that will be made into placemats. They will be included in laundry baskets with towels, toothbrushes and socks to go to families staying in the micro shelters.

Salberg told Salem Reporter in December that the idea for the project came to him as the school was seeking ways to connect a project with the community that all 190 students could participate in. 

Howard Street’s original home was in the former Leslie Middle School building adjacent to South Salem High School before it moved downtown in January 2020. Middle schoolers at the time had started a study of homelessness and planned to present solutions to the Salem City Council, but Covid stopped that work.

Salberg said in December that the move downtown to “the hub of where it’s happening” brought a new awareness to students about homeless people.

The Bush Barn Art Center at 600 Mission St. S.E., Salem is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m.

All exhibits are free and open to the public. Masks and social distancing are required, according to the Salem Art Association’s website.

Correction: This story originally misspelled Christina Tracy’s name. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.