The HART of Chattanooga

Sara York, Guest Writer

There are between 200,000 and 500,000 homeless people in America. Even though homeless people may not always be seen or acknowledged, they are in every community. For some people, it is easier to walk with heads down and never make eye contact with the homeless, but for others interaction is vital. Chattanooga’s Ellen Heavilon is someone that it means everything to. “The nicest thing you can do is look someone in the eye and smile at them,” she says. Heavilon wanted to make a difference in the homeless community in Chattanooga, one welcoming smile at a time.

Heavilon began her journey by opening The Hart Gallery on Main Street in Chattanooga in 2010. However, her gallery is not a place to buy overpriced art and sip on fine wines. It is a building in which the homeless are the artists. The work you buy from the gallery depicts an amazing message, one of hope and opportunity.

As viewers walk into the gallery, they will see an open staircase leading up a three-story building, along exposed brick walls. The artwork is said to be “good for the soul.” The homeless are welcome in the studio Wednesdays and Thursdays to work at the paint covered wooden table alongside others facing the same hardships. Once an art work is completed, it is hung on the brick walls to be sold. Artists receive sixty percent of the proceeds from artwork sold, with thirty percent going to the gallery. The remaining ten percent of profit goes to a charity of the artist’s choice.

Heavilon likes to use the rubber band analogy: when a rubber band is being held with no force being applied, it doesn’t do much. However, when you apply force, full potential is reached, but too much force can cause it to snap. “We all need that push, homeless or not,” she says. The Hart Gallery can help give homeless people that push. Gallery Director Brooke Montague, who has worked alongside Heavilon for 6 years, now manages the gallery's “H*Art Works Program” and other community outreach programs that allow homeless people to do jobs around the gallery and earn an hourly wage, all while building a resume and work ethic. Heavilon tends to think “none of us are victims,” and everyone can improve themselves. According to Daily News it is crucial that homeless people receive some sort of help: “It is imperative for people to help homeless rehabilitate off drugs and alcohol to effectively reduce recidivism and homelessness.”

Recently retired and handing her Executive Director position over to Mindy Kelly, Heavilon was an honoree for Women of Distinction of Greater Chattanooga last month. She continues her commitment to the organization she founded as a volunteer alongside current staff--Carrie Pendergrass, Gallery Director, and Cassie Tarpenning, Assistant Gallery Director--who employ homeless people and encourage the artistic side in all of us so that no one involved in the Hart Gallery is alone.

Heavilon has walked beside so many homeless people during their struggles, but she prefers to avoid recognition. “It was God that gave me the idea, so I don’t want to take all the credit,” she says. She has seen amazing success from the gallery, but her favorite is perhaps a homeless man named Jason. Jason came to the studio completely homeless with an abundance of natural talent.  With donations and his hard work, the gallery came up with enough money to send him to college. After four hard years, Jason graduated second in his class. Shortly after graduating he was employed at the Chattanoogan as a pastry decorator. Today Jason is married and just bought his first house. As Heavilon puts it, “Jason is now facing first world problems.”

Being able to help a homeless person isn’t just something anyone can do. Helping the homeless is difficult because the homeless community has to know they can trust you. “Homeless people have a hard time trusting because there are too many do-gooders in the

world,” Heavilon says. She adds that perhaps many people will come to volunteer at shelters around Christmas, Thanksgiving, or once a month to feel better about themselves, but they aren’t genuinely helping the community itself. Matt Hollis, volunteer coordinator for the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, says he begins receiving non-stop phone calls starting in November, but by the time January rolls around the phones scarcely ring. Homeless people see so many different faces in and out of shelters that it’s hard for them to spot people who are genuine.

Solving homelessness in Chattanooga is close to impossible because homelessness isn’t always a forced condition, but it is sometimes a chosen one, Heavilon says. According the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “20 percent of the overall homeless population reported having a serious mental illness,” and others may be fleeing domestic violence, have experienced job loss, or suffering with substance abuse. As Heavilon puts it, “Homelessness is not a personality trait, it’s a living condition.”  However, for those trying to improve their condition and improve their lifestyle, The Hart Gallery can help. Heavilon always stays aware of the natural tendency we have of snapping judgement on people we don’t exactly know.

The gallery has the goal of transforming the homeless people, so that they may view themselves in a positive light. When a complete stranger comes in and buys something that has been created by a homeless person it makes that person view themselves differently. For many, it will be the first time they feel worth something or important. After feeling important and viewing themselves in this different light they want to keep that feeling. This causes homeless people to begin the changing process.

“The most important thing in the world is hope,” Heavilon says. She believes that with hope anyone can achieve anything. Even after people escape the bounds of homelessness the Hart Gallery still remains a place of hope for many. Most of the people that have overcome homelessness stay involved in the Hart Gallery; some even have roles in the studio. For example, Jason teaches art classes to people that are now seated in the same exact wooden chairs he once sat in. Heavilon continues to share the same lesson with others today: “In life what we expect is what we get.”