Two years ago James Peterson initiated a conversation with a man holding a sign on a Denver street corner. The sign read: “Homeless. Anything helps. God bless.” Over several weeks James noticed and visited with others holding signs. He bought some of the signs. At one point James asked himself, “what in that person’s life led them to this street corner to depend on the generosity of passersby simply to survive.”
James, Assistant Curator on the staff of the History Colorado Center, introduced the idea of sponsoring an exhibit on the history of homelessness in Colorado. The museum staff enthusiastically created a planning committee inviting stakeholders from the local community, including some experiencing homelessness.
We served on the committee over the course of a year and a framework for the exhibit emerged under the title of “Searching for Home.” Rich discussions engaged multiple perspectives about housing, shelter, services, and the political will to see housing as a basic human right. The museum staff exhibited remarkable respect and listening skills, as the community participants raised questions and offered insights about life on the streets. Each month the staff took ideas from the meetings and crafted the next level in the development of the exhibit.
Finally, themes of Shelter, Health, Safety, and Relationships emerged. The exhibit presents several aspects and images organized under each of these four headings. Although the exhibit quickly evolved to aid people in understanding that those who hold signs at intersections provide a limited perspective of “homeless,” a heartfelt notebook of pictures and stories collected from people begging on the street has proven to be a popular feature of the exhibit. Colorado history buffs love their stories of Baby Doe Tabor, the eccentric wife of Horace Tabor, once “one of the best dressed women of the West,” who died homeless in the mountain shack she lived in for 30 years. A contemporary story of Miss Colorado 2011 being homeless with her mother right after she won her title, brings home the reality of homelessness as a result of medical problems, and the transience of financial security.