On a beautiful day on Mission Street, Annice Jacoby of City Poets saw people walking past a homeless man at their feet. Fearing that San Franciscans have grown “numb” to homelessness, Jacoby turned to what she knows best: participatory art.
UNDERCOVER, a collaborative arts effort, is sewing and distributing waterproof hooded blankets for the city’s homeless. The project draws on organizations for arts and for homelessness, local businesses, and volunteers.
The blankets, designed by local artists including Sietske Tjallingii and Txutuo Perez, will include pockets filled with a book, emergency supplies, and a few other items. The back features the image of a person lying under elaborate vines with the caption “Get me out of danger, not out of sight.”
Alongside logos for UNDERCOVER, City of Poets, and the Coalition on Homelessness, the blanket also displays Mayor Ed Lee’s email and phone number, since the project seeks to “bombard the Mayor’s office demanding solutions,” according to the project’s Facebook page.
But the project seeks to combat indifference not only at the political level, but also at the personal level. “Our purpose is to restore their [homeless people’s] humanity,” said Jacoby.
The Mission’s own Praxis, a community center and sustainable goods store on 24th Street, is inviting volunteers to sew the blankets. On Thursday through Saturday, the blankets will be available for anyone interested in helping to distribute them. Additionally, said Jacoby, UNDERCOVER will screen the stories of those affected by the city’s clean sweep on Friday and Saturday night at 6th and Market.
The distribution will be city-wide, as UNDERCOVER’s Facebook page encourages volunteers to distribute in their own neighborhoods and work areas. However, Jacoby acknowledged that “this effort began in the Mission” and that “the need is great in the Mission.”
While the blankets offer a small-scale solution, Jacoby expressed hope that — between showing the mayor’s contact information to receiving good press — enough people would get the message and “make noise” at the mayor’s office to force the issue of long-term housing solutions.
Super Bowl season is “prime time” for making the issue of homelessness so visible, said Praxis coordinator Mary Hogue. In August 2015, Mayor Ed Lee famously announced that people would need to get off downtown streets for the Super Bowl.
In Jacoby’s opinion, the mayor is just temporarily getting people off the streets to hold a city-wide party. Hogue said that similar efforts are common practice for large sporting events, from the Super Bowl to the Olympics. “That’s not gonna help anyone, that’s not gonna fix the structure,” she said of the mayor’s plan.
Jacoby described accessible, affordable, supportive housing as “the only solution.” When asked why she undertook an arts endeavor rather than a supportive housing plan, Jacoby responded that she is an artist, not a banker or architect. She maintained that there are many ways of addressing the issue of homelessness and hers is focused on spreading awareness.
Hogue also stated that “there’s a million and one ways” of helping homeless people, and she does not see this project and others as mutually exclusive.
“Art is an agency of awareness and expression,” said Jacoby. UNDERCOVER’s collaborators designed and sewed blankets as a “creative offering” with “depth and care” that store-bought blankets, despite their lower cost, wouldn’t have. The project raised a few thousand dollars for materials, received donations from local organizations and businesses, and used entirely volunteer labor, said Jacoby.
“It’s not about the blankets,” Jacoby stated. Instead, she argued, it is a “showcase for the relationship between arts and activism.” She predicted that by volunteering to sew or distribute blankets, people who may not join traditional protests will see how they too can help.
Hogue at Praxis said, “It’s encouraging people to actively participate.” She described art as “more meaningful…it’s a more hands-on way to participate” and mentioned the chance to meet many people at the blanket sewing circles.
“We’re the doers,” said Hogue of her organization’s role in UNDERCOVER. Although Praxis is “always” working for the neighborhood, said Hogue, it has never engaged with homelessness on this scale. She stated that the project supports Praxis’ philosophy of not just being a storefront, but a participant in the community.
“The responsibility belongs to everyone,” said Jacoby. Of all the problems facing the city, she said, “This is one of the most fixable.”
Blankets are available for pickup from Alley Cat Books at 3036 24th Street and Praxis at 3047 24th Street from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on January 28-30, Thursday-Saturday. Pickup will also take place at Hospitality House’s Community Arts Program at 1009 Market Street from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. on January 28-29, Thursday and Friday. The blankets will come with distribution instructions. Additionally, UNDERCOVER will project the stories of those affected by the city’s clean sweep on Friday and Saturday night at 6th and Market.