Start inside the circle

At the St. John’s Shelter healing arts class

St. John’s Shelter volunteer art instructor Melissa Cates (left) and client Rhonda Reed (right).

St. John’s Shelter volunteer art instructor Melissa Cates (left) and client Rhonda Reed (right).

Photo By Anne Stokes

No erasers allowed. The teacher snatches up all the pink rubber rectangles before the six women gathered around the large table can get their hands on them.

“We don’t erase ourselves,” says the teacher kindly.

The women quietly select crayons and pastels to begin their projects, some plowing right ahead, others pausing a moment to think.

“Just let it roll,” urges Melissa Cates, a 20-something woman with dangly panther-printed heart-shaped earrings and a heart tattoo peeking out on her shoulder, as she pulls up another table to make room for three more women who’ve joined the group.

Who cares about perfection anyway? This artwork won’t ever be hung on a gallery wall or preserved in frames. Viewers will never criticize or praise it, because there will be no viewers, besides the artist herself and maybe her roommates. If anything, a few of these pieces might eventually be Scotch-taped to a bedroom wall.

The women are part of a weekly healing arts class at St. John’s Shelter Program for Women and Children in south Sacramento. As the only shelter in Sacramento County exclusively for women with children, St. John’s offers all types of services and workshops to assist women on the path from crisis to self-sufficiency. Healing arts is among the most popular classes.

The women bend over their sheets of paper—each with a photocopied black circle, a mandala, in the center. By turns beaming and frowning, the teacher, Efrat Gubezskis, a serious, soft-spoken young woman, encourages them to observe how they’re feeling and articulate it on paper. It’s an associative technique, using colors and forms to express language when words prove too difficult. Or inadequate. But how does a woman convey what it feels like to be homeless and poor by drawing colors on a piece of paper? How does she show the pain of having had her children taken away from her? How can she possibly depict the suffocating desperation of hitting rock bottom and the long journey back from there?

Gubezskis knows it can be done. She’s spent the last several years working with down-and-out women, first in Israel, where she’s from, before moving to the United States last November and volunteering at St. John’s.

“Everything in our body and world is a circle,” Gubezskis explains. “If we start inside the circle, we immediately go to our safe space.”

Mandala comes from the Sanskrit word for “circle,” and the symbol’s been used by societies throughout the world to represent wholeness, a reminder of an individual’s connection to something larger. Tibetan monks use the mandala as a tool for centering, and the symbol is found in the architectural structure of Muslim mosques and Catholic cathedrals. Carl Jung described the mandala as symbolic of inner reconciliation, a tool for personal growth.

And personal growth, after all, is the point of St. John’s.

More than 23,000 displaced women and children have sought help from the program since it started more than two decades ago at St. John’s Lutheran Church on L Street downtown. Back in 1985, when homeless men, women and children slept on its steps, the church established the shelter to provide emergency assistance. Later it became a public charity and moved out of the church fellowship hall into the Loaves & Fishes complex. There, St. John’s provided shelter to 40 women and children a day for a maximum of one month, with clients forced to leave the premises during the day.

In 2004, St. John’s moved to a much larger building on Power Inn Road and greatly expanded its services, bringing critical programs under one roof. Here, women have access to mental-health counseling, housing services, parenting classes, budgeting and financial management, drug-relapse prevention, self-esteem building and more.

Two impromtu artworks by residents of St. John’s Shelter.

Photo By Anne Stokes

Executive director Michelle Steeb says the facility’s “secret sauce” is being able to provide all these services under one roof. Now, St. John’s provides housing for a maximum of 90 days, and last year piloted an after-care program to support women once they leave the shelter behind.

Steeb, an attractive blond woman whose style reflects her previous life in the corporate world, walks through the building’s bedroom wing, stopping to enter the “Dr. Seuss room.” Each of the 14 bedrooms has a different theme and was painted and decorated by members of the First Covenant Church. Volunteers completed all the work in about eight hours. They had no choice; shutting down even for a day is impossible for the shelter. The festive rooms have been a great addition to the shelter, Steeb says, noting that they especially lift the spirits of the kids, who make up about 40 percent of the shelter’s inhabitants.

“We don’t make children do chores,” adds Cates, who serves as the children’s program case manager. “They’re used to overcompensating for their parents. We want them to learn to be children again.”

The women perform the chores, as do volunteers. The county provides some funding, but only about half of what the shelter needs to operate. It has always relied on cash and supply donations—the crayons and pastels in the healing arts classes are all donated—but now the need is even greater.

In March, 110 women and children lived at the shelter, which has only 100 beds. Early last year, staffers turned down an average of 25 women and children a day. Then people began losing their homes to foreclosure, and the cost of gas, food and child care rose. Now, staff turns down up to 100 people a day, as more and more working women and single moms can’t make ends meet.

That’s what happened to Rhonda Reed, a middle-aged black woman who graduated from college and used to run a home day-care business before the going got tough and she lost her business. She and her 11-year-old son Charles moved into St. John’s about three months ago.

During the art class, Reed concentrates on the green and yellow lines she’s coloring in the center of her mandala. She deepens the lines, drawing over them repeatedly, making them so dark the crayon wax glistens. She hopes to start up her own business again, she says, and is in the process of applying for affordable housing.

Gubezskis solicits finished artwork from her pupils, who hesitate before passing their drawings forward for public discussion.

“When you hear other stories, you really get going,” Reed says, bending over her drawing. She’s dressed nicely—jean overalls, crisp white shirt, gold earrings, a few of the items selected from the shelter’s clothing warehouse. The woman who runs the warehouse spends her days sorting through piles of donations, tossing out unusable items; it is the shelter’s philosophy that just because someone’s poor or homeless doesn’t mean she deserves no better than to wear soiled, tattered clothing.

A woman named Robin sends up her drawing of a rainbow with a heart in the middle.

“But it doesn’t have meaning,” she warns. It really doesn’t have much of anything. The composition is all off, the color combination a jarring mix. A rainbow? That’s been done a million times before. If art’s importance is gauged only by its attractiveness, its capacity for stimulating the senses and the mind, then this single piece hasn’t much importance at all.

“Why did you choose these colors?” Gubezskis asks.

“Those are the favorite colors of my daughter, son and grandbaby,” Robin says, crying. The other women act surprised to see her tears; she’s usually the tough one.

“Girl, she broke me down. I bawled like a baby,” one woman later offers in support. Another woman, an older lady named Frankie, passes up her own mandala—a pie-chart-like image with four large, messily arranged patches of color.

“Pink is for children, purple is for women and yellow is for the sun. Green is the Earth,” Frankie explains, pointing to the drawing where two thick black lines travel from the pink and purple sections toward the yellow. “And there” she says, “are the women and children walking into the light.”

Frankie’s drawing is not actually good. Her mandala likely never will hang on a gallery wall. But to her and the women seated around her, the drawing depicts survival. Or at least an effort to get there. And in the grand cultural scheme of everything, that must be worth something.