Light a Fire

This Nonprofit Helps Those Experiencing Houselessness Build Skills with Art

“I feel that the more that we can express and share our creativity, the healthier we’re going to be as a planet.”

By Gabriel Granillo December 2, 2020 Published in the Winter 2020/2021 issue of Portland Monthly

Most With the Least winner at the 2020 Light a Fire Awards: Gather:Make:Shelter  

On the bus a few months ago, a houseless artist and a city worker struck up a conversation about the artist’s shirt. It depicted intersecting circles, with the words “Gather:Make:Shelter.” What was it about, the city worker wanted to know? The artist told him about her involvement in a project designed to bring those experiencing houselessness and creative professionals together. It was the kind of connection that is at the very heart of the nonprofit that brought it about.

Gather: Make: Shelter was created in 2017 by Dana-Lynn Louis, a visual artist based in Portland. The idea? Bring those experiencing houselessness together with members of the housed population, using art and creativity as the meeting point. She spearheaded a ceramic bowl project, in which houseless individuals were taught art history, painting, and entrepreneurial skills, and also managed to fundraise more than $93,000 through individual donations to get the project off the ground.

To date, some 2,500 people have participated. And with the houselessness crisis in Portland exacerbated by COVID-19 and now wildfire evacuees, the organization “is giving a lot of people hope and some kind of light to move towards,” says Louis. 

“We feel like we can make a difference ... and people are feeling more confident about themselves and about our ability as a collective,” says Louis. “Lots of people who are involved in the project say, ‘This is a movement, and we’re not going back.’”

From its partnership with advocacy group and newspaper publisher Street Roots to a new Gather:Make:Shelter Academy to launching a zine to the garden design in three houseless villages, the group has done it all with only one full-time staff member (Louis) and a handful of part-time staffers and volunteers. 

“With arts education in general, whether it’s grade school or adults, the most interesting thing we can do together is think about how to creatively solve problems. That’s what art helps people do,” says Louis. “More integrated arts experiences make for a more healthy human. And I feel that the more that we can express and share our creativity the healthier we’re going to be as a planet.”

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