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Inocente: How Art Helped A Teenager Escape Homelessness

Inocente, 19, is the subject of a documentary short called Inocente that won an Academy Award this year. When the filmmakers met her she was 15 years old, homeless, and living in various San Diego shelters with her mother and three younger brothers.

"That happened because my dad got deported for domestic violence," says Inocente. "So ever since that happened, we became homeless."

Things got so bad for the family, Inocente's mom once took her to a bridge with a plan for them both to jump off.

"I didn't really tell anybody. High school was when I started realizing I wasn't really normal to not have a place to live. High school was really hard for me."

The only thing that saved her was her art.

"I work with acrylics and I use house paint, too. It's really abstract and really colorful. So I'm really messy and really hands on most of the time."

Inocente paints designs on her face, presses a sparkling bindi between her brows and her clothing spans the rainbow. She is a walking art piece, which is part of what attracted the filmmakers to her. They discovered her at ARTS, A Reason To Survive, an art center for homeless youth in San Diego. The film has launched her career as an artist and, at 19 years old, she is no longer homeless after spending 9 years in shelters.

"I do sell my artwork and 30 percent of the proceeds go back to the art center. So it's been really great for me to be able to travel and sell my art work."

Inocente was in Seattle last Thursday, presenting the documentary to a sold out house at the Gates Foundation. She's been traveling the country, sometimes visiting homeless art centers like Sanctuary here in Seattle, inspiring kids like herself. That's where she met Christian Wheaton, a homeless artist who has gotten to show her work thanks to Sanctuary.

"When I do art, it takes me out of myself and my situation," says Christian. "It moves me from the things that cause me stress or the things that I think about that aren't all that great going on in my life. It moves me from that situation. It's my therapy."

Troy Carter is executive director of Seattle's Sanctuary Art Center. He says they offer a 10-week job training in screen printing so young, homeless artists can learn a trade.

"Part of our mission is connecting youth with creative experiences that lead to successes. When a youth sees someone wearing a T-shirt that they've made, all these kids with Pacific Science Center camp shirts, [and they say] 'I see them all over the place and we made those!' That is something that is invaluable. It's almost as valuable as food and shelter. These sort of moments where you can build success and positive reinforcement and great relationships with people that are there to say, 'Hey, that's great! You did a great job.'"

Rachel Belle, Ron and Don Show Reporter
Rachel Belle is a feature contributor and personality on The Ron & Don Show on KIRO Radio (weekdays 3-7pm), and host of Ring My Belle Weekends (Saturdays at 5pm and Sundays at 3pm).
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