In Plain Sight project an eye-opener for Wentzville teacher

Teak Phillips | teakphillips@archstl.org
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Steve Henry was caught by surprise when he discovered a student with whom he often interacted at his school was homeless.

It was a prime example of how homelessness often is in plain sight, but yet remains hidden, the Wentzville teacher said.

Henry joined a group of friends who bought a table for a dinner auction hosted by Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service Aug. 19 at the St. Peters Cultural Arts Centre. It was the culminating event of "In Plain Sight," a photography exhibit the care service hosted this summer to raise awareness of homelessness in St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties.

At the dinner, Henry noticed a familiar face featured in the exhibit's top 20 photos. Mattie, the young girl pictured in a hotel room eating a cup of cold SpaghettiOs, was a student at the school where he was teaching at the time.

Even though he wasn't her teacher, "every day that she would walk by my classroom, and she'd always have a big smile on her face and always make an effort to give me a high-five," said Henry, who now teaches at another school in the Wentzville School District. "It always made me feel happy and a bright spot to my day. I didn't realize Mattie's story until tonight."

Henry ended up being the winning bidder of the photo of Mattie, bringing in $110. All in all, the dinner, along with sponsorships and donations from online voting of the images, raised an initial estimate of $32,000.

At the dinner auction, Mattie and her grandmother Sharon, who took the photo, shared how they had been renting a house, but the homeowner didn't pay the mortgage, sending the home into foreclosure. They got a letter from the bank, giving them three days to vacate.

The two landed at a budget motel in Wentzville in January, paying $345 a week to keep a roof over their heads. They did laundry in the bathtub and their dishes in the sink of the double-bed room, with their suitcases and other belongings lining the wall.

Sharon reached out to Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service for help. By late June, the agency helped them find temporary housing nearby in Wentzville. Sharon said she's currently working on getting her finances in order, and is working with the care service to find long-term housing. And through it all, Mattie has made almost all As in school and has been on the honor roll.

"I am so appreciative to Sts. Joachim and Ann taking the time to help us out," Sharon said. "We really needed it, and we still have a long way to go."

The photography project began in April, when the care service distributed 100 disposable cameras to homeless people to capture everyday images of their typical living situations. In addition to raising awareness of homelessness in the tri-county area, another goal was to give homeless people a voice and impact change, said Pam Struckhoff, director of program services.

The top 20 photos were displayed on a website, inplainsight.live, where visitors could vote for their favorites. The images were auctioned off at the dinner. A second collection of photos is available as a traveling exhibit.

"We know the people behind these lenses," Struckhoff said, describing them as courageous, resilient and humorous. "Most importantly, they are a child of God." 

Photography exhibit

To see the top 20 photos (#15 received first place, #16 received second place and #2 received third place) and read the stories behind them, visit the In Plain Sight website at inplainsight.live.

Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service also has a traveling exhibit of 20 photos taken by homeless individuals and submitted to the photography project.

To reserve the exhibit for public venues, contact Karen Grant at (636) 441-1302, ext. 263. 

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