.Portraits Of The Unhoused

Linking community through visions

All eyes are on Porter Wayne Hoover. He’s sitting in the bright conference room at Housing Matters on Coral Street, across the way from his residential unit at Casa Azul. Hoover sports a trucker cap and a denim jacket as cameras and lights are set up across from him, ready to give him their undivided attention.

It’s February 2024 and Hoover, 53, is telling his story for Housing Matters’ Community Voices series. The interviews are meant to highlight the lives of formerly unhoused people in order for others to connect with them, and are posted to the Housing Matters website. During his interview, Hoover, feeling vulnerable, chokes up with emotion as he relates how he previously came to be homeless.

“I didn’t know how to get off the streets. I didn’t have a support group or a caseworker and nothing like that at first. I thought about taking my life a couple of times and they hospitalized me,” Hoover says.

Dealing with bipolar disorder, PTSD, depression and debilitating nerve pain, Hoover has now obtained housing at Casa Azul, which serves chronically homeless individuals who need long term assistance.

Hoover’s experiences and those of others dealing with housing insecurity is the focus of “Look Me in the Eyes,” a one-night-only multimedia art exhibition coming to the Museum of Art & History on May 3. The interviews and accompanying photographs were used by local artists as inspiration for original works.

secure document shredding

The project was headed by Housing Matters Artist-In-Residence Abi Mustapha, a renowned local muralist and activist. Mustapha is also a co-founder of the Santa Cruz Equity Collab and was involved with the creation of the Black Lives Matter mural in downtown Santa Cruz.

“Coming in as an artist, I’m using my type of lens to highlight some of the inequity and problems that maybe could be addressed through art. So this is experimental, like all public art, and the point of this show, specifically, is to really highlight and humanize people who have experienced being houseless in Santa Cruz, which is a lot of people,” Mustapha says.

Mustapha reached out to various local artists for the project, including photographer Abram Katz, who took the portrait photos other artists used for reference.

Katz did 30-minute sessions with the participants, time, he says, that was spent getting to know them as people and listening to what was going on in their lives.

“The idea was to take photos that showed dignity, that showed pride, power, place and purpose in this world,” Katz, 46, explains in an interview.

While the participants were grateful to be in a secure housing situation, Katz says they all expressed concern over those that are still unhoused.

“I found that the most fascinating and the most heart-wrenching and impactful for me was that those with almost no resources were more concerned about other people than themselves,” Katz says.

“Look Me in the Eyes” has brought together artists and participants from different life experiences, and some of the artists can relate personally to being unhoused.

Harley Hudson always felt like an artist. Originally from Georgia, the 28-year-old wasn’t encouraged to pursue art as a child, however. Now, she is delving into photography, and armed with a used camera and rolls of film, she is capturing vibrant images of unhoused people in the Santa Cruz community.

“When I was experiencing homelessness one of the things that I noticed was feeling invisible. And I just don’t want anyone to feel invisible. So now that I am in a place where I can use my voice, I would like to use my voice to amplify the voices of others,” Hudson says in an interview.

The artists and participants behind “Look Me in the Eyes” will be in attendance at the MAH event, engaging in conversation about the works and their personal stories. Other artists include Melissa West. Karina Jade Neeley, Andrew Purchin, Marsa Greenspan and Kyle Sanders, to name a few.

Hudson says she feels honored to be included on the roster.

“It’s really unbelievable that a girl with Trailer Park Road stamped on her birth certificate—someone who grew up being told that she would never become an artist—can stand  next to such legends in the Santa Cruz community. I’m in disbelief. I have to pinch myself every day,” Hudson says, overcome with emotion.

The exhibition is also meant as a primer for the upcoming March Against Homelessness on May 18. The march is in its second year and is put on by Housing Matters in order to bring “actionable solutions to homelessness through the advancement of public policy,” according to their website.

Mustapha hopes “Look Me in the Eyes” will build connections in the community amongst people who have more in common than they think.

“There’s such a stigma around what [homelessness] looks like or what people believe that it looks like. So, to have people that are very relatable, who have the capacity to come and speak to people and connect, I think will hopefully draw a crowd that could be influenced by the connection, similarities and overlap that everybody has in this,” Mustapha says. 

“I mean, we’re all living in the same town.”

Look Me In The Eyes” will exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History for one night only on May 3, 2024. The event will be held from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. as a part of First Friday and is free to attend.


  1. Some years ago, 2004 or so, there was Michael, usually sitting in front of the main post office, drawing cartoons, Mouse, political, fun, SC characters. Together with my business partner we would see him frequently during the week, mailing our unsuccessful PR materials. Often chatting with Michael, we’d buy his work for a dollar, then 5, then we came up with an idea he coud be selling his work to a local newspaper. Oddly enough, no one wanted either our efforts or the relationship to even start, allegedly due to improper or lack of documents on Michael’s part. Can you relate? More awareness 20 years later? I recall stories from the 60’s, there was no paperwork needed to start tamales, hot dogs, or beach icecream stand, and perhaps, only perhaps there were less homeless people ?Who has the stats, or who cares?

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  2. Wolf, i do not have the stats , but I CARE. the homeless in pajaro are in my Cabrillo district. the homeless Cabrillo students searching for a place to live and study are part of my purview as a trustee. we need to build our dorm on the Aptos campus for 300 students. yes, It matters to me. it is now under Environmental Impact Review. and i want to thank writer Josue Monroy for an EXCELLENT article . this is the kind of journalism we need. the individuals interviewed raised questions about being unhoused that few reporters ever broach.

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  3. It’s to bad it was only for one day…after all, our unhoused live with this daily the least they could be given a few weeks of a showing so more people could be impacted by truth.

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