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Posted on Wed, Dec 8, 2010 : 5:55 a.m.

Letters Home art exhibit on homelessness at St. Francis of Assisi aims to give voice to the voiceless

By James Dickson


Ann Arbor artist, Susan Clinthorne, stands in the middle of the homelessness art installation she created at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Ann Arbor. To make the installation and bring attention to homelessness, Clinthorne and her sister purchased cardboard signs from homeless people around the county and collected items associated with homelessness. The exhibit is available for viewing from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Lon Horwedel |

Where would you go if you had nowhere to go?

Susan Clinthorne has a theory on why most people try their hardest to ignore the homeless and the panhandlers they see on the streets: “No one wants to think that it could happen to them," she said.

“Another part of it is, when you see someone in trouble, you feel compelled to help. It’s easier not to when you can ignore that person.”

For parishioners of the St. Francis of Assisi Church at 2250 East Stadium Boulevard in Ann Arbor, ignoring the homeless isn’t a possibility, not since Clinthorne installed her exhibit, “Letters Home,” featuring the signs and images, in life-size cutouts, of homeless people, in late November. "Letters Home" will remain at the church through Monday, Dec. 20, at which point it will head to St. Aidan's Episcopal Church on the north side of Ann Arbor.

Clinthorne, an artist by trade, took an interest in homelessness and the signs homeless people carry to panhandle almost three years ago.

"'Please Help Me,'" Clinthorne said, repeating one of the signs that touched her in the early going. "Three simple words and it says so much. It also makes you want to learn more," and in Ann Arbor, Flint, Chicago, New York and even out West, Clinthorne and her sister and collaborator, Sally Thielen, set out to do just that.

Not only did the sisters pay for the signs — ranging from $5 locally all the way up to $20 in New York City, a price Clinthorne attributed to the higher cost of living — they took pictures of the homeless and also interviewed them to hear their stories. In her exhibit, Clinthorne has also included some items frequently associated with homelessness, including cardboard boxes and a shopping cart.

Clinthorne had always heeded the conventional wisdom on the homeless — that any money you give to one will soon be spent on the same vices, drugs and alcohol, which paved their road to homelessness.

If simply giving away cash was out of the question, then paying for the signs they carry was "a fair exchange," she said.

Beyond the desperation in the signs, which Clinthorne and her sister still collect to this day, Clinthorne saw a humanity. The first thing you notice about "Letters Home" is the gruff-looking man crouched down outside of his makeshift, cardboard home. He holds a sign that says "HOMELESS PLEASE HELP."

Clinthorne can't reveal the Ann Arbor-area man's name because she only got verbal, but not written, permission to use his image. His home is a cardboard hut, dirtied every time he enters it by his Columbia work boots. He has experienced just enough good cheer to have obtained a wreath and some Christmas decorations, but not so much that he’s eating anything more than two Granny Smith apples that day.

Near the bedding area lies a doll, perhaps the toy of a child whose mother would rather she not know that Dad is homeless. And then there's the vice — a tin of chewing tobacco that substitutes for meals, and a case of Miller Lite to fight, or at least mask, the winter chill.

The signs and the outsized cutouts give a three-dimensional nature to "Letters Home." The faces of the homeless are black and white and young and old. Some have been poor all their lives, others fell into bad circumstances and couldn’t get out.

Off the back wall Clinthorne attached a laundry list of the famous and formerly homeless, a list that ranges from Jesus Christ to Ben Franklin to Harry Houdini and Halle Berry. Message: The homeless aren’t so different from you or me. There, but for the grace of God, I go.

Clinthorne has encountered some negativity for her work. There is an initial skepticism when she tells people about it, a concern that the homeless are being exploited for her personal gain.

Those concerns go away when she explains that (a) she bought the signs and (b) she doesn’t make any money from the exhibit.

Scott Wright, director of the social ministry at the St. Francis Parish, is happy to have “Letters Home” on display. He said that the exhibit has gone over well with parishioners. Many have taken an interest and several have even donated money to the church’s ministries.

Wright concedes that most homeless are in that position, if not as a direct choice (leaving an available home in favor of the streets) then as a consequence of earlier choices. Even if those consequences were unimaginable at the time.

“We’ve all made mistakes,” Wright says, “but the big difference between you, me and a homeless person is that we don’t have to face our consequences alone. We have family, friends. But who would you call if you had no one to call?”

James David Dickson can be reached at



Wed, Dec 8, 2010 : 10:17 p.m.

@Speechless. Thank you. Excellent comment. And accurate.


Wed, Dec 8, 2010 : 9:54 p.m.

"... There, but for the grace of God, I go...." So many people are a paycheck or two or three away from a situation of homelessness. Often, this might not mean living outdoors in a box or trying one's luck a local shelter, but instead result in temporary quarters on friends' couches or in basements. Even so, the era of Hoovervilles has returned. "... The best way to solve the problem is to invite them in, not exploit them for the sake of art!" Yeah, right.... Clinthorne must make a small fortune displaying in churches. This is one of those articles where the more vehemently some commenters object to the project in question, or ridicule it, the more that demonstrates its social usefulness or necessity. No, these folks clearly don't want any further reminders of growing homelessness, in part because any real solutions to this very real human tragedy will involve goring their political sacred cows. The "argument" that the artist should devote her time exclusively to housing or feeding homeless persons — and never spend a single minute creating displays about them — reads like a mechanical, rote talking point.


Wed, Dec 8, 2010 : 12:26 p.m.

@ Andy: I think the point of the exhibit is to open people's eyes to homelessnesss. We all know it's there. We all see the people with their signs or asking for 'donations'... But even though we see them with our eyes - we don't really see them with our hearts.


Wed, Dec 8, 2010 : 11:58 a.m.

It's critical to re-sensitize "locals" and others to homelessness. Perhaps doing so will result in increased actions taken to aid the homeless--which can be any of us given the state of the economy. Bravo to the art lady. She's "doing" something.


Wed, Dec 8, 2010 : 11:10 a.m.

I simply don't understand the anger and criticism that comes out in these comments. Especially from "the usuals." This is obviously something Ms Clinthorne is passionate about. Why be negative about how another human being chooses to help?


Wed, Dec 8, 2010 : 10:34 a.m.

While some people give and help those less fortunate, others are Grinches and Scrooges. I just don't understand how anyone could bash not only the homeless but those trying to help. I think that people bash the homeless and those trying to help do it to cover up when confronting their own feelings of inadequacy, helplessness and discomfort.


Wed, Dec 8, 2010 : 10:33 a.m.

I tend to agree with xmo...less talking, more doing.

Jill Stefani Wagner

Wed, Dec 8, 2010 : 10:20 a.m.

Wow Susan. Absolutely amazing. I commend you for focusing on this problem in a way that brings it so close to home. There is no ignoring the problem when you see it like this. And in its own undeniable way, it is artful and visually interesting. Kudos! -- Jill Stefani Wagner


Wed, Dec 8, 2010 : 9:54 a.m.

She is helping to raise the awareness of this severe issue. Please be nice to everyone. She is doing her job. Her gift is art work, so she makes good use of her gift to bring better lives to other people. What's wrong?


Wed, Dec 8, 2010 : 9:13 a.m.

So, How many Homeless people does Ms. Clinthorne have living with her? The best way to solve the problem is to invite them in not exploit them for the sake of art!


Wed, Dec 8, 2010 : 9:07 a.m.

Memo to Mr. Cynic: Although there may be some truth in what you are saying, perhaps you can use some of your energy to help others instead of attacking those who are at least doing something to improve the lives of others. You cast stones at this woman as if your tax dollars were used for this display.


Wed, Dec 8, 2010 : 7:36 a.m.

Wow, spent alot of time, energy and money travelling all around to get evidence that the homeless are desperate (really?) instead of simply using that time and resources to help the locals that are obviously in need here. A VERY creative approach indeed. I think a worldwide expedition needs to be planned out and started for 2011 - 2015 to study the homeless more. Homeless aren't want of art installations, they need food, clothing and shelter. I love how church missions always seem to find areas to focus on that are in some far off land that takes considerable time and resources just to organize and get to. Why not focus all your energies at home in Ypsi, Flint, Warren, Detroit or even Grand Rapids if you feel the need to travel? The funds, efforts and time you so graciously can provide are most efficiently used at HOME. I think the homeless would agree if they indeed had a voice.


Wed, Dec 8, 2010 : 7:08 a.m.

To state that homelessness is the result of "earlier choices" is to trivialize both homelessness and choice. He states: "Wright concedes that most homeless are in that position, if not as a direct choice (leaving an available home in favor of the streets) then as a consequence of earlier choices. Even if those consequences were unimaginable at the time." Clearly this is not the case in instances of medical disaster, economic collapse and other events outside the range of individual freedom(s).