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?”
“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.
“Homelessness makes a lot of people look down on you. I don't know if I'm the face of homelessness but I am a face of homelessness. My education didn't save me. My businesses didn't save me. My addiction brought me further and further down. So I am a face of homelessness, and it can happen to anybody. If you read The New York Times you'll know that people are a paycheck or two away from it. I'm a real person that this happened to. I'm not ashamed. … I'm Precious, that's who I am. And like the phoenix I will rise again, just like I always do. I don't want it to be forgotten that I'm human and there’s something wonderful about being beautifully human. There are people in penthouse apartments who have no idea who their friends are. Who are spiritually homeless. I'm not spiritually homeless. I know who I am. And that's beautiful.” -- Precious, 2017
"The homelessness in my youth was all tied to my mother's addiction. Then, as I got older, I went to live with my grandparents and my father. When I started coming out toward my junior and senior year, that was when I couldn't live with them anymore, because they were really strict Irish Catholics. They essentially told me I could not come back. So I ended up living with my friends, with my high school English teacher. Then I got to college and had my first girlfriend. Something that I'm working on is not allowing my relationships to be home for me. Because what you end up doing is building homes in other things and other people, which is a really dangerous thing to do. When you grow up without a home, you hold on to people. In my apartment right now in Brooklyn, this is the longest I've ever lived anywhere in my life, which is two full years. It's exciting, but I don't think I'll ever get rid of the feeling of impermanence. As an adult looking back at these experiences, I think about how easy it is to slip back into that system. Had it not been for the scholarship program that got me into NYU, I don't know how I'd have gotten out.” -- Meghan, 2018
"When I was a kid, I would hear fire trucks go by and I would say, 'I want to be a fireman.' And nowadays I try to figure out what happened to those dreams ... why did we lose that desire to be? What happened? It helps me to tell my story because it's like a burden ... and this is an opportunity to let it go. When I was 11 I left home and went to the streets. The people in the streets became my parents. They became my idols, and I tried to emulate them. They offered me security ... something that I'd never got before. But as a child I still had those dreams of being a fireman, of wearing a uniform. But those dreams were taken from me because I had to grow up fast ... I had to be responsible for me at such a young age. I couldn't be a child. To this day, I've never had a birthday." -- Milo, 2015
“Don't judge a book by its cover, because you never know what a person has been through. Prior to being homeless, I worked for the attorney general. I had good jobs. I started working at 12 years old. But the drugs ... I ran into a guy with fast money, and didn't have to work, everything was provided. So I was exposed to the drug life, and got caught up in the life I was exposed to. Crack is so powerful, you get that high that one time, and you never get it again. So you're chasing that high. It was rough being out on the streets, because you never knew who you were going to bump into. For 11 years, I drank every day and smoked every day. I thought I was going to die on the streets. But God said no. And he gave me a second chance at life. I've been clean for 27 years. I got my children back, I went to school. Got my first master's. I'm working on my second master's, to get my [master's in social work]. I'm currently working with homeless men. I have a population of 177 men and I have the daunting task of making sure they have housing and that they are treated with dignity. Every now and then, I have to give myself a refresher course. Because you can become numb to the pain, numb to the way some people are living, and then I have to remind myself, Leslie, you used to be a homeless woman, too, so if there was hope for you, there's hope for them.” -- Leslie, 2018
“I’m just trying to get back on my feet. I have a family back home … they are waiting for me. This program is going to send me to school, get me some training. I never got my G.E.D. ... Those are some things I’m trying to accomplish. I just want to get on my feet and go home and take care of my children.” -- Anthony, 2015
“I’m starting my whole life over again. I was part of a gang. Once my niece was born, I tried to separate myself from the gang. That’s not the lifestyle I want my niece to see. She’s my motivation, she’s why I came back to this program. I have to step up and be a brother, a son, and an uncle. They all know I can be it -- a great man -- but back then I didn’t see it. I want to become a youth counselor. I want to catch the young brothers before they even have the thought of gang life.” -- Declan, 2015