Conference Puts a Face on Homelessness

Last Updated on February 27, 2015 at 11:49 am

Originally published February 20, 2015

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP News Service

A snapshot of a clear garbage bag full of clothes and shoes lying against the wall of an abandoned building in downtown El Paso is among the 35 pictures taken by 12 homeless men and women to document their daily struggles. The photos will be part of an upcoming gallery at The University of Texas at El Paso.

Photographed by Courtney Adcox, a formerly homeless graduate student in the Master of Social Work program at UTEP, the garbage bag image was a reminder of the day seven years ago when she was thrown out of her house for being gay.

From left, Hector Rosales, Daniel Vasquez and Raymond Tullius from the Opportunity Center for the Homeless join UTEP Assistant Professor Eva Moya and graduate students Jacqueline Loweree and Courtney Adcox at the center in downtown El Paso. The Opportunity Center and the UTEP Department of Social Work will host the second State of the Homeless Conference on Feb. 27, which also will feature a photo exhibit on “The Faces of Homelessness.” Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

From left, Hector Rosales, Daniel Vasquez and Raymond Tullius from the Opportunity Center for the Homeless join UTEP Assistant Professor Eva Moya, Ph.D., and graduate students Jacqueline Loweree and Courtney Adcox at the center in downtown El Paso. The Opportunity Center and the UTEP Department of Social Work will host the second State of the Homeless Conference on Feb. 27, which also will feature a photo exhibit on “The Faces of Homelessness.” Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

As her mother screamed at her to leave, a 17-year-old Adcox threw her belongings in a clear plastic bag and sought refuge at her cousin’s house. After a few nights, a friend temporarily took her in. For two months, Adcox was without a place to call home.

“When I was walking downtown, I saw that bag,” Adcox said referring to the garbage bag in the picture she took last fall. “To anybody passing by they’re going to think it’s just a bag of garbage. But then I saw shoes in there and all types of stuff and then I thought, ‘That looks like my bag.’ It just hit home.”

Adcox’s story will be featured in a new Photovoice exhibit at UTEP titled, “The Faces of Homelessness: Voices and Images of Homelessness in the U.S.-Mexico Border Region.”

Photovoice is a method where vulnerable populations affected by a particular issue use photography to document their quality of life, with the hope to bring about positive social change. The project is led by Eva Moya, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work, who has previously spearheaded Photovoice projects on tuberculosis, intimate partner violence, violence against women, disability and other health disparities.

The exhibit will anchor the second State of the Homelessness Conference from 1 to 4 p.m. Friday, Feb. 27, in the Health Sciences and Nursing Building.

Organized by the Opportunity Center for the Homeless and the Department of Social Work in the College of Health Sciences at UTEP, the conference is a three-part series focused on identifying the causes and conditions of homelessness, finding potential solutions to minimize the effects of homelessness in the Paso del Norte community, and reducing the social stigma associated with homeless people in the community.

“The second component of the conference series is to help identify the faces of homeless and help the community understand who the homeless are,” said Daniel Vasquez, fund development director at the Opportunity Center for the Homeless in El Paso. The first conference took place at UTEP in November. “We’re trying to get away from that image of the vagabond on the street corner asking for money because so much of the emphasis and the focus is on mental illness, women, children the disabled – the true population. That’ll help us catapult toward the third phase, which will be integration and action.”

Call to Action

The State of the Homeless Conference will bring together advocates for the homeless with community leaders and policymakers to provoke awareness and action about issues of concern to homeless people in the Paso del Norte region.

The El Paso Coalition for the Homeless estimates that 1,394 men, women and children are homeless in El Paso.

Notable speakers include UTEP President Diana Natalicio; Dean of the College of Health Sciences Kathleen Curtis, Ph.D.; Consul General of Mexico in El Paso Jacob Prado; Juárez Mayor Enrique Serrano Escobar; and Bishop Mark Seitz of the El Paso Catholic Diocese. Representatives from the El Paso Coalition for the Homeless, County of El Paso and the Collective of Women’s and Children’s Services will provide the initial response to the call to action, which is to improve the lives and services provided to homeless persons. State Rep. Jose Rodriguez will offer closing remarks.

The conference also will feature a presentation of the Voices and Images gallery by Photovoice participants, which includes residents of the Opportunity Center and former homeless UTEP graduate students Adcox and Corene Seymour.

A documentary about the project participants on homelessness produced by Perla Chaparro and UTEP alumnus Diego Davila also will be screened during the conference.

Outreach and Education

The photos in the gallery have been grouped by themes including broken systems, invisibility, true opportunities, and growth and determination.

The project was facilitated by students in the macro-level social work class taught by Moya. They include Adcox, Seymour, Jacqueline Loweree, a graduate student in sociology, and doctoral student Paola Chavez. The students recently gave a presentation about Photovoice at the American Association of Behavioral and Social Sciences conference in Las Vegas.

Since fall 2014, students have been engaging in educational opportunities to help homeless persons reintegrate into the community.

This January, the 15 students in the upper division course have each been paired with a resident of the Opportunity Center. Students will participate in community interventions, develop case studies, and prepare a Healthy People 2020 proposal, a national health promotion and disease prevention initiative established by the Department of Health and Human Services.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for students to demonstrate their competencies and practice their social work skills because they are beginning to work with residents,” Moya explained. “They’re working with the Opportunity Center leadership. They’re doing implementation plans. We learn, we exchange, we grow, we become competent, and then we give the gifts back to the organization and the larger community.”

Working at the Opportunity Center is the reason Corene Seymour decided to become a social worker. Seymour, a graduate student in the Master of Rehabilitation Counseling program, was displaced after a house fire left her homeless. She will proudly display her graduation picture from UTEP in the Photovoice gallery.

“By working on this project, I was able to connect with persons in homeless situations and understand their barriers, issues, hopes and dreams as well as what they think should happen so they can overcome homelessness,” Seymour said. “Each participant has a unique view that can help shape policy as we work to work on social change within the community to overcome stereotypes, and general devaluation of persons dealing with homelessness.”

The Voices and Images Gallery will be on exhibit in the Health Sciences and Nursing Building from Feb. 27 – March 17. For additional information, contact Eva Moya, Ph.D., at emmoya@utep.edu or 915-747-8493.

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