SF art installation tells untold stories of the homeless through augmented reality

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Imagine eating breakfast at Safeway every morning with your school-age children. You put on deodorant, change your socks and at least wash your face. You don't have access to a shower. You are homeless. But you manage to get your kids off to school.  

This is the story of Hector Calderon, 56, a San Francisco resident who tells his story through a unique augmented reality installation, Coming Home, a public art project that seeks to strengthen the connection between the unhoused and housed. Produced by Lava Mae and Zero1 it also explores whether or not augmented reality can evoke empathy from people.  


Calderon is one of nearly two-dozen people in San Francisco who tell their story of being unhoused. He's lived in Bayview Hills for five years through assistance from San Francisco Housing Authority. He's currently applying to move to low-income housing in the Outer Richmond neighborhood.  

"I was going through a hard time. I didn’t have a kitchen to cook for kids and I had food stamps," Calderon said over the phone. He spent three months in a shelter with his kids. 

Part of his story includes a time when things were more stable when he lived in Phoenix, Arizona, where he did independent contracting, worked construction, painting, lighting and other side jobs. 

"I had bought a house, had stocks. I felt 'normal' like everybody else," Calderon said. Things fell apart when he split with his wife. 

During his time at the shelter, he would go to an Episcopal church to practice for his GED after dropping off his kids at school. He did this for self-improvement, but also to take his mind off his situation. 

"I'd practice math," he said. But his self awareness weighed on his conscious. "You don't feel comfortable. You sit apart from [others]. You don't want to hear, 'Oh, man! You stink.' You cannot socialize like you want to. I'm not 'normal', according to society. I'm a stinky homeless person." 

Calderon was put in touch with Lava Mae, a mobile six-day a week hygiene service that offers showers in select cities including San Francisco. 

"Lava Mae is deeply loved in the community. They've treated the community with the dignity they deserve," said John Craig Freeman, a professor of new media art at Emerson College Boston. He's also an augmented reality artist.  

The concept of Coming Home largely came from Freeman and was based on a San Jose project through Zero1. "I'm a public artist," Freeman said.

"I love technology. I love the idea when [Freeman] told me that and I wanted to see what that would be like. I thought, 'What does this avatar do?'" Calderon said. 

The process of obtaining hundreds of photographs from different angles of the subjects and turning them into avatars to be used in a downloadable app for San Franciscans to consume sounds painstaking, and maybe even obtuse, but they had help.

Radio journalist, Tania Ketenjian, with Sound Made Public, who by all accounts is great at putting her subjects at ease, recorded the conversations. "Tania had the power to bring a story and to bind it with the work of augmented reality," said Amy Schoening, the installation's co-curator and Lava Mae board member. 

"The tension between the broader community and the unhoused has increased," said Schoening. 

Lava Mae refers to a 2010 study that shows "many people don't see homeless people as real human beings." 

"People are surprised at how articulate and the self-awareness of the people telling their stories. There's a subconscious thing that happens when you hear someone that sounds like you," Schoening said. 

The disparity of the have and have nots in San Francisco is nearly unavoidable and cannot be ignored. To some the app may be interpreted as inappropriate considering it uses expensive technology. Schoening is aware of this. 

"Do we really need an app to do this? We see homeless people all over the place. Do we need to see more?" Schoening said. 

She explains it as a non-threatening way to engage in a conversation with someone. 

"You have to start somewhere. I don't know that the way to talk to someone is to approach them and say, 'Hey, tell me your story,' that's a matter of personal space." 

Meanwhile, at PROXY, an open outdoor art space in Hayes Valley, a yoga group does their downward dogs and planks among the hundreds who have by now taken in the installation at that location with the assistance of docent-guided tours. 

Schoening said the yoga teacher and others have said they're happy to see the space being used this way. "If only we could sit with one another we would. It’s a learning process," she said. 

Calderon has seen his own avatar, but he said his kids haven't. They're grown now. 

"My oldest son is working. They have their own thing going on," but he reflects on the experience with positivity. "The idea is to tell the story of my experience. What you go through. You gotta give back somehow. I was given an opportunity and now is my time to return the favor. I’m not the only one." 

Coming Home can be experienced September 7 - 16 at PROXY in Hayes Valley and seven other locations throughout the city.