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La Jolla Library exhibit puts faces on ‘invisible’ homeless San Diegans

Jordan Verdin's photo of a woman named PJ is part of a La Jolla/Riford Library exhibit of portraits of homeless people.
Jordan Verdin’s photo of a woman named PJ is part of an exhibit of portraits of homeless people running Aug. 20 through Oct. 15 at the La Jolla/Riford Library.
(Courtesy of Jordan Verdin)

As part of a multi-library tour across San Diego, the La Jolla/Riford Library will host something most people rarely see — an exhibit highlighting the faces and stories of some of the area’s unhoused residents.

The show, running Saturday, Aug. 20, through Saturday, Oct. 15, doubles as a fundraiser for Humanity Showers, which provides pop-up showers for homeless people, and as a donation drive for socks, sleeping bags and hygiene products.

A reception is scheduled for noon to 3 p.m. Aug. 20 at the library, 7555 Draper Ave.

Twelve portraits by Oceanside-based photographer Jordan Verdin will be on view in the Community Room Art Gallery, along with the stories of the people in the photos.

“This worthwhile and important exhibition gives faces to the nameless unsheltered citizens of San Diego in a way that is both straightforward and revealing,” said library branch manager Bill Mallory.

After watching a family member experience homelessness, Verdin began interviewing and photographing unhoused people in 2014, hoping to better understand their needs and circumstances. At the end of each interview, he would ask about the subject’s most pressing issues.

The most common answers: not wanting to “feel invisible” and needing to be clean.

Looking to help with both, Verdin started taking portraits and documenting stories and showcasing them in public spaces, with sales and donations going to help establish shower trailers at events intended to reach homeless people.

“I want people to be seen but also help the viewers overcome their implicit bias, which is when you think something about someone automatically,” Verdin said. “When we see a homeless person, we think something negative without knowing how they got there. The stories are intended to challenge implicit bias and get people to think more critically.”

Since its inception three years ago, Humanity Showers has provided about 2,000 showers a month.

“In San Diego, we have thousands experiencing homelessness, and they say one of the hardest things is finding a place to take a shower,” Verdin said. “The mission is to build showers and provide portable showers to enable people to be in a space to make better decisions about their long-term future rather than their immediate needs. We partner with other homelessness organizations and help their clients get a haircut, a meal, a shower and shoes.”

A photo of a man named James is part of Jordan Verdin's art exhibit that is doubling as a fundraiser for Humanity Showers.
(Courtesy of Jordan Verdin)

Humanity Showers also recently partnered with the San Diego County district attorney’s office to provide showers for unhoused people who need to appear before a judge, and teamed with the California Department of Motor Vehicles so people can be clean before getting their ID photo taken. It also partners with job fairs.

“If someone hasn’t had a shower in a week, they might not want to apply for that job or make a big change in their life,” Verdin said.

One of the photos that will be on view at the La Jolla Library is of the first person to ever take a shower through Humanity Showers. But other stories are more unsettling.

One of them, of a man named Brett, reads: “My dream is not to be homeless anymore. To have a regular life, have friends and be able to go over to their house — the little things that I used to have. That’s the hardest thing for us when/if we do get off the street, because we don’t have any other friends besides those who are also homeless. What I want people to know is I was just like you before. I was no different. … I became homeless due to health issues. I had a stroke in 2008 and a heart attack in 2015. Before I was homeless, I worked in construction. My doctor said I am unemployable due to my health. I have applied for [Supplemental Security Income] and have continually been denied. I feel like they are waiting for me to die. Finding a place to eat, sleep and clean up are my biggest needs. I have so many worries when I’m out here. It’s hard because I can’t just focus on one thing; I have to focus on everything at once.”

“I know all the people in these photos personally,” Verdin said. “All of them are from San Diego. Three have since died on the street.”

“When we see a homeless person, we think something negative without knowing how they got there. The stories are intended to challenge implicit bias and get people to think more critically.”

— Jordan Verdin

The exhibit in La Jolla will help “set the tone” for future showings at other San Diego Public Library branches, including Rancho Penasquitos, Mission Valley and the Central Library downtown, he said.

“La Jolla is one of the most beautiful places in San Diego, and while affluent, there is still homelessness here,” Verdin said. “I want people here to start thinking about the people on the street differently.”

Bonnie Domingos, the San Diego Public Library’s arts and culture exhibitions director, said Verdin’s exhibit feeds into the library system’s mission to showcase a broad range of disciplines and subjects.

“Jordan’s work with Humanity Showers is a shining example of the intersection of community service and art,” Domingos said. “The homelessness crisis is one of many challenges we are facing in this region. Jordan’s project and work is an impactful, dignified and engaged response to this crisis. He shines a light on the individual, the circumstance, and it allows an entry point for the community to understand what our unsheltered populations are experiencing. His portraiture is a reflection of his keen artistic ability to tell stories, build bridges and challenge preconceived notions.”

The La Jolla/Riford Library’s regular hours are 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays and 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. Learn more at lajollalibrary.org. ◆