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House and Tome: Retiree Uses Second Life as Artist to Highlight Homeless Plight

Judith Rubenstein began her “Searching for Home” booklet project last spring, asking people living on the street or in shelters to write or draw their thoughts on the very concept of “home.”

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Artist Judith Rubenstein with her accordion booklets featuring the thoughts of homeless New Yorkers.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The three-by-five-inch accordion-style booklets Judith Rubenstein creates are small and easy to carry, but they hold big dreams from dozens of homeless New Yorkers. 

“I meet a lot of good people that give me a lot of hope,” reads one entry by one of her subjects. “The thing that worries me is that I don’t want to die in these streets.”

A former community social worker and middle-school teacher, Rubenstein began her project “Searching for Home” last spring, asking people living on the street or in shelters to write or draw their thoughts on the very concept of “home.”

Rubenstein said she was motivated to make political art based on her years working in nonprofit organizations like the Henry Street Settlement, which helps connect people to public benefits. 

“It’s not just that they were poor, it’s that no one really respected them in the world,” she told THE CITY.

Living in Manhattan across from Tompkins Square Park, last April — when there were several homeless encampments there the mayor later pushed out — she started asking people in the park to contribute to a single volume.

Within a few weeks she’d filled an 80-page booklet. She then moved to making smaller editions, with one subject each, and set up a table at the park with markers and pens and her books for people to contribute.

She asks a simple question: “What does ‘Home’ mean to you?”

Rubenstein paid each contributor $5 after receiving some financial support from the nonprofit Puffin Foundation. She was inspired to create the books after seeing a surrealism show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art last year, she said. 

It was there she saw the work of jazz musician and artist Ted Joans, who created long accordion books – including one that grew to be 30 feet long — to display drawings and doodles.

A booklet where unhoused people write about their idea of home includes a page with the words “I Love New York.”

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Over the past year, she’s filled 10 books, added one in Spanish — “Buscando Hogar” — and created another for her friends and fellow students at The Art Students League called “I Have a Home.” She also recently added “Youth’s Thoughts on Home,” focusing on homeless and runaway young people. 

She’s used the books to draw attention to the dire need for stable housing and those affected by its shortage, even putting the average costs of rent on some pages. 

“We look away from them on the subways as if they are not human, that they’re another species,” she said of the unhoused people she’s worked with. “It’s shameful the way we treat them.”

Her work has been mostly focused on those who live in shelters or on the streets. 

In one book, a page shows a drawing of a pile of blankets on the ground. “This is NOT a home,” it reads. 

One of Rubenstein’s booklets shows a drawing of an apartment building.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Rubenstein also set up tables at local soup kitchens where she volunteers. 

Steve Fanto, the manager of volunteer and community services at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in Chelsea, said he was amazed at how the people who came to eat lunch flocked to Rubenstein when she set up her table with books and pens and markers. 

The art project, he said, “can change peoples’ views” of those who are living on the street or facing food insecurity. 

“They’re really smart, they’re really talented artistically and creatively,” he said. “They are very much like the next person reading this article, who have hobbies, who have families.”

Bearing Witness to Humanity

Rubenstein spent most of her professional career as an educator and community social worker, teaching eighth grade English in North Carolina and then working for nonprofits in New York City including Catholic Charities and the Henry Street Settlement.

She grew up in an upper middle-class home in the Bronx and loved art,  she said. But her father didn’t let her study it, afraid college art departments were “full of Bohemians.”

Ten years ago, at the age of 65, she went back to Brooklyn College to fulfill a lifelong dream by getting a bachelor’s degree in fine art. 

“I took four years of art classes,” she said. “I was in hog heaven.” 

Although she thought she’d “do portraits, landscapes,” Rubenstein was drawn to the political power of art. “I didn’t know that would happen, but it did,” she recalled.

One of Rubenstein’s booklets written in Spanish.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In 2015, before even graduating, she collaborated with other artists to create fliers letting low-income New Yorkers know they can apply for a tax credit just for living in the city. 

She hopes to continue her art project to fill 40 books and then display them and show them around the city. The Puffin grant ran out so she’s now paying participants out of her own pocket while looking to secure other funding for the project.

“My goal in this book is to make you cry, and then rise to action,” she writes as part of her artist statement on her website.

Ultimately, she wants to humanize those who are struggling. 

“I’m wise enough to know that doing something about homelessness involves laws and committee meetings and lobbyists and things I don’t want to get involved in at all,” she said.

“I would like my next 20 years to be spent mainly doing this particular project, that I bore witness to the homeless problem in New York City.”

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