One Step Away

 

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Passersby take a selfie, take a step as part of program raising visibility, awareness 

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May 7, 2015, Washington, DC—People walking past the Wilson Building on Pennsylvania Avenue Thursday afternoon encountered a strange scene: People lying on the sidewalk under a riser, people wearing masks, and draped signs and black cloaks. A group of artists from the Street Sense Media Center had brought their concepts to the street, in a piece of interactive art called One Step Away.

Created by the whole group from a structure envisioned by Street Sense Media Center artists Carlton Johnson and Melanie Black, One Step Away was intended “to represent in an abstract way what unstable housing is,” Johnson said—that many people are just “one step,” a few days, or a paycheck or two away, from being homeless. Johnson does not have a home and works as a Street Sense vendor to eventually earn a deposit.  “It also shows how homeless people are walked over,” he said. “To a lot of eyes, homeless people are invisible.”

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As part of the performance, an artist from the group would lie down under the riser—the “one step” of the title—while passersby were invited to stand on the step, and to take a selfie photo or have their photo taken, to show how close they were to the conditions of homelessness or unstable housing. The artists wore masks to represent the invisibility or loss of identity that can come with not having a home.

Other artists from the group talked to people passing by, inviting them to join in or explaining the work.

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Reactions varied; some people refused to stand on the step or to take a selfie, saying it was too painful to acknowledge. Some said simply observing the interactive art piece was enough to get the emotional impact. Ward 7 Councilwoman Yvette Alexander stopped to talk with the artists for a moment and take a picture on the riser outside the Wilson Building.

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Angie Whitehurst, a Media Center artist who also works as a Street Sense vendor, took a turn at lying under the riser. A petite woman in an insecure housing situation, she has worked with the Street Sense theater group in the past, and said she found the experience interesting, especially listening to participants discuss the decision to “take the step”—or not.

“The project gives a visual name to a social injustice,” she said. “We’re in such a visual world now. This project makes a person stop and look—they don’t have to read about it later, or watch it later on the news. When they see it, they feel it, and they can think, ‘yes, this is important. I am a caring person; I don’t want homelessness in my culture.’” “Art helps me be part of something to improve our lives and advocate for the larger picture,” she says.

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(photo credits: Mataliong Du)