'Everybody's Place' needs a place to enable Prescott-area homeless to prosper through art
PRESCOTT - Jean Lutz has never missed a meal or wondered where she might sleep at night.
So how is it this 73-year-old retired banker is now a champion for those with no place to call home, men and women who because of broken families, ill health, lost jobs, substance abuse or other misfortune are left to sleep in the woods or depend on the kindness of strangers for necessities?
She said it's simple: In the last five years she has come to know their names and their stories, to see their talent and their hearts. Many once wore their nation's uniform.
"How can we treat each other this way?" Lutz asks.
Like many, Lutz admits she spent a big chunk of her life ignorant about homelessness. She mentally labeled those she spotted on the streets of Phoenix as "bums." She didn't consider that maybe the homeless man on the street corner lost his mind after his child was killed in a car accident, or the recession robbed him of his house, job and family. Maybe combat mentally paralyzed him.
Then one day she visited a new shelter in Phoenix; her husband, Ed, was a board member. She was stunned to see women and children huddled inside.
She knew she needed to take action. She just didn't yet know how.
In 2010, she found a way. A late-in-life clay artist, Lutz opted to teach pottery classes to homeless or at-risk clients of the Open Door, a program of the Coalition for Compassion and Justice. She saw it as a potential antidote to some business owners' concern about the homeless chasing away their customers.
"I was blown away at their talent," said Lutz of the students whose first project was to make ceramic bowls for the annual Empty Bowls festival.
A member of the Prescott Fine Arts Association and the Prescott Area Arts and Humanities Council, Lutz called her project, "Everybody's Art Space."
A few months later, she was offered a temporary space downtown. She then renamed her program "Everybody's Place."
Her class criteria: "You can't say 'I can't' and you have to have at least one belly laugh."
For six months, Lutz met with a rotating group of would-be artists once a week. They were teachers and truck drivers; some wrestled with addiction, legal troubles or family strife. One young man lost everything after he was diagnosed with cancer.
She discovered how quickly a life can unravel.
"With what they go through in being homeless, I'd be an alcoholic," Lutz said. "The humiliation is horrible."
Then her program was left homeless.
She reached out to other social service organizations, even city officials, but to no avail. Some deemed her clientele too big a risk.
But Lutz was not to be deterred.
In 2012, Lutz was nominated as an Outstanding Artist Activist at the Buckey Awards held at the Elks Performing Arts Center.
Lutz' expenses are $95 a month for a downtown storage unit where she keeps a supply of donated materials she distributes to those willing to make something out of it.
She has volunteered with local veterans organizations, including the Northern Arizona Veterans Affairs Health Care System. In the new year, Lutz hopes some of those leaders will partner with her in locating a space, be it on the VA campus or elsewhere in the city, she said.
In late November, Lutz organized a first-time holiday arts craft sale for some 14 homeless, or formerly homeless, artists, most of them veterans. They sold everything from stained glass wind chimes to rocking horses and bead jewelry.
It proved a learning experience for all, Lutz said.
In the coming months, Lutz said she and some of her fellow craft group members intend to hold some workshops for these fledgling artists so they can better market their products.
"I love that she has this passion," fellow crafter Mary Timpany said.
Timpany said she hopes others rally behind Lutz's philanthropic endeavor and find her a dedicated place where these individuals are safe to hone their talents or learn new ones.
"It's definitely needed here," Timpany said. "There is a large underground population that could be served."
One such artisan, Richard Findlay, said Lutz's belief in him, and others like him, is invaluable.
"This gives people control of their lives," said Findlay, a woodworker. "When you're homeless you feel crappy about yourself, disenfranchised."
To have the opportunity to create art allows people to "display their worthiness to the world rather than worthlessness," Findlay said.
"We just need a building," concurred fellow artisan Dennis Hutchinson.
Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2041 or 928-642-6809.