By Talia Avakian
Reporting for Pavement Pieces
Thomas Byron examines the brushes, pens, spray cans, and papers he will use for his next piece. He sorts through the scratched or torn items until he spots a source of inspiration. On some days, it’s a blank canvas, on others, it’s a blank piece of cardboard. He snaps up the cardboard straight away to get to work on his art piece for today. There’s a sense of urgency for Byron, who is homeless, because he isn’t looking for these items in an art store, he’s looking through the trashcans of New York City.
Stopping to take a rest after a long day of walking, he sits on top of a vent that blows out warm air outside of a laundromat on the corner of First Avenue and 11th Street. Byron, 57, has been homeless for the last four years, but he refuses to ask for money. Instead he survives on selling his art for $10 to $40. His head is covered with the hood of his sweater and he wears a thin fleece coat. Byron’s ashy fingers reached into a blue canvas bag and he pulled out his most recent sketches.
Every sketch is in dark ink. One is of a portrait of a woman. Half her face is turned away, left partly empty with only pen marks fading into the blank white sheet of paper. Another is a sketch of a wine bottle, the landscape of New York inside, and a thorny rose cutting through the glass of the bottle. Byron said the sights and people he sees everyday on the streets become the initial inspirations for his sketches, and his journey while living on the streets - from his initial feelings of pain, to times of turning to alcohol, and of his exposure to the city atmosphere of New York - ignites the direction his drawings take.
For Byron, his path into homelessness and into art began in prison. He had been working part-time at McDonald’s when he was imprisoned for an incident he refuses to talk about. Byron first began drawing during his time in jail as a way to maintain serenity, he said. While in jail, he got in a fight that turned into a $100,000 lawsuit, and when he lost the lawsuit, he was forced out on the streets when he was released. He was living with his sister who kicked him out, and he had no money for rent.
His path to homelessness was only partly circumstantial.
“Most homelessness comes from family issues, from growing up in dysfunctional families,” said Byron.
Despite being homeless, Byron is happier living on the streets. He was only 19 when he first became homeless. A teenager from North Carolina, Byron knew nothing about navigating through New York, he said. He had no idea about where and how to find homeless shelters, but when he finally found and spent time in them, he realized being on the streets was not only more dignified. It was safer.
New York’s shelters fail to actively find solutions to the problem, Byron said, locking people in to homelessness rather than serving as an outlet for to them grow and get out of it.
“Bellevue Shelter is a perfect example, where you not only have only about 10 inches of space between you and another person, but you have people with mental issues, drug issues, and people who steal living in such close proximity,” Byron said. “So I choose to sleep in the street and take my chances.”
He remains optimistic, but being an artist on the street is hard. He has had his artwork stolen while riding the train. He has had it stolen while sorting through dumpsters for clothing. He said sometimes, his backpack becomes so heavy that he has to leave it behind, even though it’s filled with all his art supplies and the portfolios he is trying to sell.
But Byron doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him. He wants to be seen as more than the label of “a homeless man.”
“In a city like New York, your value is determined by the money you make,” said Byron. “Take Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a man who was well-respected after his death, even though he was found with 40 something bags of heroine. You have a great respect for him, but a guy on the city street, you wouldn’t give him the time of day because you think he doesn’t want to do anything or he’s lazy.”
But the reality is that sometimes individuals who work are still homeless.
Catherine Trapani is the housing director at New Destiny Housing, an organization dedicated to assisting homeless individuals reach stable housing. She sees how the high price of New York’s rent can force many hardworking individuals into homelessness.
“When many people think about homelessness, stereotypes can emerge that don’t necessarily capture the real story of what is going on for families and individuals who have no place to live,” said Trapani.
Trapani works with homeless people who are making a conscious effort to support themselves, but who are still homeless because what they make, even in a fulltime job , isn’t enough for them to afford housing.
“New York is one of the most expensive cities in the world and even those who have jobs may not be able to afford rent,” Trapani said. “It is crucial to understand that in order to end homelessness, the gap between wages and rents must be bridged and developing housing that is affordable to people with extremely low incomes is essential.”
For Byron, it’s the moments of judgment from people passing by that make life on the street most difficult.
“When people see you looking in the garbage, they think you’re the lowest of the low,” said Byron. “People on the streets may look less than average, but if you take a closer look at what they have to offer, you might find a diamond in the rough.”
But he doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He is now at the point where he views his presence on the street not as a misery, but as way to make people look at homeless differently. He fondly recalls one man who, after seeing his artwork on Wall Street, brough him $350 worth of art supplies to support his work.
And it’s because of these moments of recognition of his talent that Byron continues to dedicate time to his art, he said.
For now Byron may be seen sitting on the street or digging through trash cans, but he continues to work on his art because of his belief in its ability to one day get him out of the streets. The only thing he asks for, he said, is a fighting chance to be seen for his art and not for how he makes it.
“It’s like the Frankenstein theory, where you have this person with a good soul who is labeled as a monster because of the way he looks, or because his path is different,” Byron said. “Sure, it may be an animated story, but it’s a story that has a lot of psychological human truth to it when you stop and think about it.”