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Can Art Bridge The Divide Between People Who Have Homes And Those Who Don't?

Patti Ramos Photography
A scene from one of Tacoma's "In Our Backyard" events

The actors in "Room For Rent" wear elaborate animal masks. A hen, a cuckoo bird, a cat, a squirrel. 

Behind the masks are people who are homeless or have experienced homelessness in the past.

Three times this summer, they've stood before audiences of people who know little about what that's like and tried to bridge a gap of understanding.

The play is one part of an event called "In Our Backyard." It's the culmination of an experiment officials in the City of Tacoma launched last year, when they hired two artists-in-residence and tasked them with designing projects that have a positive effect on the city's homelessness crisis.  

One of the artists is Roni Chelben, who is based in Austin, Texas, but traveled to Tacoma throughout the year to conduct research, plan, and then direct the "In Our Backyard" events.

As homelessness has worsened across the Puget Sound region, conflicts around the issue have grown more intense. Elected officials are often torn between constituents who want local governments to accomodate homeless people and spend money on long-term solutions and others who demand stricter enforcement of laws like those that forbid camping in public places. 

Chelben, whose work in Texas has dealt with homelessness, said she believes fear plays a central role in such conflicts.

People with homes may associate the sight of homeless people with the fear of becoming homeless themselves, she said. Or they may fear the guilt they feel when they interact with homeless people. Or they may fear things they don't know much about, like drugs. 

At the heart of it, she said, is "fear of the other." But, she said, art can create a space where people are able to confront it.

"We need to mediate those fears," Chelben said. "Mediate the conversation, mediate the communication to kind of let those fears go somehow." 

Tacoma's other artist-in-residence is Susan Robb, who is based in Seattle. Her work focuses on "reclaiming" underutilized public places in the city.

The artist-in-residence program's cost is $100,000, which includes pay for the artists and budgets for their projects.

"In Our Backyard" begins with a showing of video interviews with people who are homeless. It ends with a conversation between the audience and performers. 

The fable-like "Room For Rent" performance takes place in the middle of the event. The story centers on four animals who share a house and are searching for a new housemate. 

One by one, prospective tenants reject them, displaying the prejudices they hold against the animals living in the house. The hen is fat. The cuckoo has multiple children who live in different households. The cat's fur is black.

The story has a happy ending. But Chelben said that didn't feel right to her, given the subject matter. 

So, afterward, the actors take off their masks and read accounts of their actual experiences with homelessness.

"The people are expressing themselves and telling their own stories in their own words," Chelben said. "It kind of shifts the power relation, even if it's only for, you know, half an hour." 

The two final "In Our Backyard" events are on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Tacoma's Portland Avenue Community Center and on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. outside the Tacoma Art Museum.

Credit Patti Ramos Photography
A scene from one of Tacoma's "In Our Backyard" events

Will James reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. He created and hosted the Outsiders podcast, chronicling homelessness in Olympia for more than a year, in partnership with The Seattle Times.
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