WRITTEN BY: ANIKA HORN | PILLAR OF HOME| ISSUE 07
It’s a late afternoon in October 2022 in Waynesboro, VA. Outside of a housing shelter, a little girl reaches up to her mother’s pregnant belly. Her shock of curly hair contrasts the pastel colors of her striped summer dress as she looks up at her mother. Her small hands lay protectively around her little baby brother who is due to arrive any day.
In 2022, 1,422 citizens in the Shenandoah Valley called The Valley Homeless Connection (VHC) in need of housing assistance. 260 of them were children. 490 of them reported staying in places not meant for human habitation. 357 of callers reported experiencing a history of domestic violence.
“Housing insecurity and homelessness are not individual problems, they are a systemic issue. 43% of our community members are housing unstable. That translates to 47% of our children growing up in insecure housing conditions.Each of these statistics tells a story about a real person who lives right here in our community. If we can have compassion for those among us who experience housing insecurity instead of doling out judgment and shame, we can make a big difference. ‘This is Home’ is our attempt at breaking down the barriers to compassion. What I want people to understand is that housing insecurity and homelessness don’t occur because of something you did. It’s something that happens to you.”, explains Kate Simon, photographer behind ‘This is Home’.
‘This is Home’ is a project by the Community Foundation of the Central Blue Ridge, a non-profit investing in the quality of life in Staunton, Waynesboro, and the counties of Augusta, Highland and Nelson. Together with Chris Lassiter, community liaison at the Community Foundation, Kate started documenting and telling the stories of families and individuals in the Valley experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity.
Kate tells us, “We started it based on a feeling that we needed to tell the full story of the housing crisis. We wanted to go beyond the traditional opinions and stereotypes and really showcase the individual stories of people affected by housing insecurity. Nonprofits usually work through numbers, spreadsheets, and statistics. We wanted to do something different, so we approached the issue through an artistic lens. We used the arts to appeal to people’s emotions and make them interested in the issue, to give a human face and story to these statistics. ”
To date, ‘This is Home’ has portrayed 13 stories of housing insecurity in the Valley with more already underway. You can view and listen to these stories at www.cfcbr-thisishome.org.
“It’s not what you did, it’s what happened to you.” -Kate Simon
Back to the late summer afternoon in Waynesboro: When Kate and Chris got word of the opportunity to photograph mother and daughter for ‘This is Home’, they jumped into their cars to meet them in front of the shelter. Kate gives some background, “The little girl comes from a family with a history of generational housing instability. Both her mother and grandmother grew up in and out of shelters. When her mother got pregnant at 15, she promised herself that she wouldn’t subject her kids to the same instability.
However, she ended up losing her home and had to move into a WARM shelter with her three-year-old daughter while nine months pregnant. While in the shelter, she qualified for a housing voucher and was able to get keys to an apartment, but had to cut her hours to part-time or risk losing her housing voucher. The day after we met with her at the shelter, she got her keys and moved into her apartment. Her baby was born a week later, and as far as we know, she’s still in the apartment.”
Photography has been a constant thread through Kate’s life. She started with a plastic point-and-shoot as a child and spent most of her high school years in the dark room. Despite being told that this was a hobby at best, not a way to make a living, she stuck to her passion and became a self-employed photographer.
“Through my photography, I try to capture emotion – be it through a person’s eyes or face or hands. I want the people who see my pictures to also feel part of the story we’re telling. That’s why I love photographing families and children. There are so many tender and intimate moments that I get to capture and preserve.”, Kate says about her photography.
But, having a family and household to support herself, Kate also held a photography job for a catalog for years. Not where her heart was but how her bills got paid. Kate explains, “I had this catalog job for a long time. I decided to make a shift in my personal life and pursue things that I felt really mattered. I wanted to shift my focus to my values and what I could bring to my community. I wanted to focus my work on what I could do to help people.
The vacuum that flipped the script
“I remember, one day I was listening to music and vacuuming my house, and I realized: ’I can’t do this anymore. I have to do something else and if that means that I try this, and I fail, and I end up working in retail that’s okay. But at least I know that I tried.’”
That moment of vacuuming flipped the script for Kate. She told herself that she was going to trust that this was what she was supposed to do. She wondered ‘What is the point of my photography if I can’t make a difference, if I can’t help people?’
For Kate, photography had to go beyond taking pretty pictures. “I felt like there was a greater purpose and I just had to trust that. I had everything I thought I wanted so it was scary to give up this reliable income, especially as a self-employed photographer. But it was also exciting because I knew there was something else out there that I hadn’t explored in a long time. I think deep down, I knew that I wasn’t fulfilling my true purpose.
Starting to work on community issues through storytelling was a mixture of fear and excitement, but, ultimately, I just had to trust that feeling inside of me. I had to take that leap of faith and see where it would take me.”
By telling real stories of housing insecurity and homelessness in the Valley, Kate and the Community Foundation were able to raise awareness and several million dollars towards the cause. ‘This is Home’ will be on display at libraries, coffee shops, area schools and other public places to raise awareness of the issue. You can see the virtual exhibition at www.cfcbr-thisishome.org.
“What is the point of my photography if I can’t make a difference, if I can’t help people?” – Kate Simon
About Kate Simon
“I believe in magic. That every picture has the magic of time, & life & light inside it. Telling the stories of these temporary seconds that make up our lives, the ones we want to always remember, that’s what makes me happy. I want to help you relive the way he looks at you, her wrinkly newborn hands, those curls. I am a mother, a partner, a daughter, a friend. I love old houses, tintypes, plants, music and magic. I have been loving photography professionally for over 15 years, with work ranging from catalog styling to portraits, food, farms, editorial and non-profit.”