On most days, Brooklyn-based artist Allie Wilkinson behaves like any other New Yorker on the subway: Her eyes are glued to her phone or a book, careful to avoid contact and conversation with random people, if at all possible.
But one day in 2015, a homeless man walked onto a train Wilkinson was on and launched into a story about his life.
“For once, I wasn’t absorbed by my phone and I looked up and listened,” the artist told HuffPost. “When I looked around the car, I realized that no one else was looking at this man.”
Wilkinson said she thought to herself, “I’m not a politician or a social worker but I am an artist. How can I use my platform to help people who are so often ignored be seen and heard?”
That question led Wilkinson to The Bowery Mission where, with the director’s blessing, she proposed having visual artists paint or draw portraits of homeless men and women who passed through the shelter.
“I ended up sharing my idea with a room full of people who were experiencing homelessness, and had just come for a warm meal,” she said. “I was overwhelmed by the response; so many people wanted to share their story.”
Since launching the Face New York project, 20 artists from all over the world have completed 30 portraits. At exhibition openings ― there have been a handful since 2015 ― the subjects of the portraits are usually taken aback by the work.
“I remember this man Milo saying he never thought he’d have a portrait done of him because ‘portraits are for important people,’” Wilkinson said. “It made me think: Who are we memorializing? Who are we seeing in museums and art galleries? And who are we forgetting or ignoring?”
Wilkinson’s mixed-media project is especially vital given the state of homelessness in the U.S. The nation’s homeless population rose in 2017 for the first time since 2010, in large part because of a surge in homelessness on the West Coast in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley.
On any given night in 2017, almost 554,000 people were experiencing homelessness, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report.
“Face New York” compels viewers to hold the gaze of some of them, and it gives homeless men and women a much-needed opportunity to control the narrative about their lives.
“We’re fed a limited narrative about how people end up homeless, which leads us to ignore or dehumanize people,” Wilkinson said. “That absolves us of any responsibility around this issue. I hope this project leaves people connected to each other’s humanity.”
Scroll down to read some of the stories, and head to The Bowery Project to make a donation toward hot meals, emergency shelter, medical care and life-transforming programs for the homeless.