Art & Culture

Kirti Bassendine’s art gives voices to the homeless

New photo exhibit at Gilroy Center for the Arts introduces you to your neighbors, the ones without homes.
Kirti Bassendine, fine art photographer focusing on the individuals experiencing homelessness locally. Photo by Leslie David.
Recently elected Assemblyman Robert Rivas (right) viewed the photo exhibit and spoke to people who attended the event in Gilroy. Photo by Leslie David.
Nadi (left) and Noshaba (right) point out the photos of people they have volunteered with at the Armory and the Compassion Center in Gilroy. Photo by Leslie David.
Dennis deals with PTSD and chronic anxiety. He said,
Dennis deals with PTSD and chronic anxiety. He said,
Janessa works at the Compassion Center in Gilroy and lives in San Benito County. She is very interested in finding new ways to help find homes for people. She is standing in front of the tiny home she lives in. Photo courtesy of Kirti Bassendine.
People took their time, reading the text written by Bassendine and absorbing the personal stories. Photo by Leslie David.
Bassendine thanked Jackie, owner of First Street Coffee, in particular for helping make the project come to fruition. Here, Jackie smiles, listening to the opening speeches at the exhibit. Photo by Leslie David.
Photos of Jan Bernstein Chargin, board chair for the Gilroy Compassion Center, along with others trying to address the needs of the homeless population were included in the exhibit as well. Bernstein Chargin challenged listeners to go beyond assumptions and accept that homelessness can happen to anyone regardless of background. Photo by Leslie David.

Homelessness is an issue across the country, but one part time San Benito County resident is working to shed light on the local homeless population through art.

Fine art photographer Kirti Fatania-Bassendine held an exhibit Jan. 12 titled Homeless Voices at the Gilroy Center for the Arts. Bassendine is a photographer currently based in California who uses still photography, writing and videography to tell social stories. Her bio explains she grew up in England, where she graduated with BA Honors in Fine Art Photography.

The exhibit is a collection of large portraits, short explanatory text and videos about the regional homeless community. The free exhibit will be on display at the center, located at 7341 Monterey Road in Gilroy, for the next couple weeks ending Jan. 26.

The grand opening of the show focused on individuals living behind the “homeless” title.

“It really brings life to it,” attendee Noshaba said as she leaned forward to read about the person boldly depicted in front of her at the exhibit. “It helps break the stigma and barriers down.”

The short biographies strung along the exhibit wall tell condensed, personal tales of how Bassendine’s subjects came to be without dependable shelter. The event was a social experiment in itself, combining art enthusiasts, members of the homeless population and community activists.

Assemblyman Robert Rivas, recently elected to represent District 30 that encompasses San Benito County and Gilroy, came to the show, met the artist and some of the homeless who came to speak.

“You hear so much about lack of housing around the state,” Rivas said. “The exhibit puts everything into perspective.”

Bassendine and her husband, David, live part time in Paicines in San Benito County and part time in Morgan Hill in Santa Clara County. She said her primary goal when she began the project was to end the pre-conceptions people have about who the homeless are.

In opening remarks, Gilroy Center for the Arts Executive Director Kevin Heath said Bassendine has shown “passion, dedication and a lot of hard work” putting her multimedia exhibit together.

When she spoke, Bassendine said that the homeless she met while creating her exhibit deal with crime, mental illness and often are scared, which are common stereotypes. But she said that as she worked on the project, she became more aware that the population is mixture of people like any other community. The multimedia exhibit includes video comments from her photo subjects about how they became homeless, what home meant to them and what life is like without consistent shelter or a place to keep your possessions safe.

Faviola, a woman featured in the exhibit, came with her husband and three children. She said that living in a van for over a year has been difficult for her family of five and their dog. A long-time Gilroy resident, Faviola was quoted saying, “I was called a stupid mom, a worthless mom and that I should give my kids up to adoption because they would be better off. But now I know why a lot of these women give up their kids. Because they give up on themselves.”  Faviola says she is strong but that “society is cruel” and that she appreciates the homeless community for protecting her and her children.

Matthew, who is 28 and has two sons, told guests that he is a homeless “newbie”. He said with rents in Gilroy going for $2,500 and more, “its really hard.”

Attendee Noshaba and her friend Nadi spent their Saturday afternoon seeing friends they work with at the arts center exhibit. They mentioned they are part of the interfaith community, helping at the Compassion Center, Gilroy Armory and the Focus Safe Car Park in Morgan Hill where the homeless population can get assistance. Speaking about the display, Noshaba said it helps disrupt assumptions.

“When you look at it, it is very clear that not everyone [who is homeless] is a drug user or alcoholic,” she said.

Nadi also helps at the Armory and works in real estate. “It’s very powerful,” she said looking across the room at the portraits gazing at her from the opposite wall. “I know some of the people here. And they are just normal people like the UPS driver or worker at Walmart.”

Noshaba and Nadi said that as part of Silicon Valley Islamic Community and the interfaith community, they feel compelled to take care of each other and their neighbors.

“If everyone just took a little concern it would help,” Noshaba said.

Jan Bernstein Chargin, Gilroy Compassion Center board chair, reminded exhibit attendees that “homeless is just a title for your current living situation”, more a temporary state than your identity. “It doesn’t capture where you lived yesterday or where you will live tomorrow.”  She said the center’s goal is to help people get back on the path to permanent housing.

Bernstein Chargin continued: “You hear people say, ‘the homeless don’t want any housing. They want to live that way.’ But if there is someone who feels that way, I haven’t met him.”

Bernstein Chargin reminded the crowd to push for housing and zoning solutions.

“Go to City Council and let them know you want it, so they have the courage to support it,” she said.

Bassendine said in a news release that she hopes the exhibit will expand to other Bay Area communities, including stories from towns such as Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Jose, Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco.

“By making the plight of the homeless population visible, I hope to raise awareness, encourage compassion and help bring in more resources to improve the safety net available to our homeless neighbors and help them get back on their feet,” Bassendine wrote.


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Leslie David

Leslie David is a Bay Area independent reporter/producer and is a BenitoLink founding board member. She has produced for radio, television, newspaper and magazines in both California and Wyoming. She was with KRON-TV News in San Francisco as camera-woman, editor and field producer, where she won the Commonwealth Club's Thomas Storke Award with Linda Yee for their series on the Aids Epidemic. She started as a small market news reporter shooting her own 16mm film at KEYT-TV Santa Barbara. Leslie lives on a ranch with her family in San Benito County.