Some Place Like Home

Through art, gardening, and soccer, Lawrence Cann is putting the humanity back into human services and getting the homeless off the street


What if you had nothing, had lost everything, or never had anything? What if you were invisible, cast out, untouchable, but at the same time, hypervisible, your every move put under a microscope, your every motive questioned? What if you could trust no one, and your only thoughts were Will I eat? or Is it safe to close my eyes and go to sleep? What if you were homeless?

And what if someone held out a hand and offered you sanctuary, if not home, at least hope? It is a gesture that Lawrence Cann, director of the Urban Ministry Center's Community Works 945, makes every day. His gift, according to those who know him, is being able to see the person beneath the stereotype and to treat everyone with equal humanity.

The UMC, located at 945 North College Street, is the end of the road—literally. At Twelfth Street, College jogs left and slopes downhill, out of sight of uptown's gleaming corporate towers, then abruptly stops, a river of asphalt dammed by a tall, wrought-iron fence. Soaring rose bushes, bloom-spent in the summer drought, coil defiantly through the ironwork. A colorful, skyline-bearded, jazz-inspired Humpty Dumpty holds court from a fresco on a block-long white retaining wall.

Begun as a soup kitchen housed in a derelict train station, UMC now serves lunch and offers a variety of social services to Charlotte's growing population of homeless and marginalized citizens 365 days a year. The center is funded by corporate donors, the faith community, and individual gifts. Although the center is integrated into Mecklenburg County's homeless services network, it receives no public funding or support from the United Way. In March 2006, the kitchen and corporate offices moved to a new building, and the train depot, painted in a riot of joyful colors, became home to Cann's baby, Community Works 945. He describes it as "a groundbreaking, comprehensive suite of programs that reaches out to, engages, and surrounds the homeless with the structure of support they need to move off the streets and into self-sufficiency."

All told, Community Works engages 250 people a year, and a significant number of them have dramatically improved their lives. In addition to ongoing art projects, Community Works encompasses a community garden, helmed by Don Boekelheide, and a homeless soccer team, coached by Lawrence's younger brother Rob.

Skeptics scoff that the center's funds could be better spent on food, housing, and job training, but Cann has a knack for developing programs that allow the disenfranchised to step back into society.

"So much of the structure of human services is, ‘You on your side of the desk and me on mine,' " Cann says. Sitting in his second-floor office overlooking the train tracks, Cann's green eyes are fluid, dancing sunlight refracted through cool water. "You play your role and tell me the story so that I can give you the resources I'm supposed to dispense to you. It's all very theatrical. People fall into those roles. But when you're playing soccer or doing artwork, it challenges that mind-set, for those who participate and for those who are outside. That's what we do here. We create activities where people can work side by side."

Even Urban Ministry Executive Director Dale Mullennix had his doubts. "My thought was, ‘Our job is not to have happier homeless people, it's to help them escape homelessness.' I've since learned that happier homeless people do much better at escaping homelessness than unhappy ones," Mullennix says.

The soccer program operates year round, with twice-weekly practices and a schedule of regular games in a local league. Last year, the team competed in the inaugural Homeless USA Cup (an annual event launched here by Cann that will next take place in June 2008 in Washington, D.C.). "Being part of a team is being part of a community," Cann says. "It means entering into relationships with people and being held accountable. Soccer specifically addresses what I call ‘the homeless time horizon'—a state of mind when you are only thinking as far ahead as your next meal and where you're going to spend the night. It's a survival mentality. We set three-, six-, and twelve-month goals with our players so that they start moving their time horizon farther and farther ahead. Basic planning and goal setting is valuable to everyone, but for people on the street it is paramount.

They literally can't afford not be organized and goal oriented. There are a lot of agencies, dangers, and interviews to navigate."
Frances Hawthorne, a recently retired UNC-Charlotte art professor, is a volunteer and collaborator with Community Works. "The thing people don't realize about the homeless is that when you fall outside of mainstream culture, you wander into another culture that has its own rules and regulations and habits of being, and … there is so much that prevents you from feeling welcome back into mainstream society," she says. "Homeless people need a lot more than food, shelter, and a job. They need the social skills to do things as simple as ride on a bus and be able to have a conversation. Lawrence recognizes these things intuitively, and he has implemented programs that have helped people return to society in a meaningful and purposeful way."

Cann's introduction to the Urban Ministry was as a front-desk volunteer during his undergraduate days at Davidson College. After a stint teaching English in Japan and traveling the world, he returned to Charlotte and was hired to run what was to be a one-time summer arts program for the homeless. "I think I took a stipend of $1,500," Cann recalls. "We used the rest of the money to host our show and buy art supplies."

At the end of the summer, the UMC held an art sale that raised $10,000 for the program, after which Cann applied for and was awarded a $20,000 Arts & Science Council grant that enabled him to establish Art Works 945. By then, Mullennix realized he'd struck gold in both Cann and Art Works. "Lawrence has a gift for bringing people to himself and to his programs," Mullennix says. "He knows how to involve them in all different levels of our story in a way that is so humanly true that they just want to become part of it. We've gone from a three-month experiment, where our artists were painting on four-foot-by-four-foot pieces of plywood with enamel house paints, to taking soccer players to South Africa, Scotland, and Denmark."

A native of Richmond, Virginia, Cann's childhood home burned to the ground when he was nine. The family was able to move in with relatives until they got back on their feet, but the experience left Cann with a true appreciation of what it means to suddenly lose everything. At twenty-nine, he is an enticing mix of Camelot-era Kennedyesque optimism, soccer jock (he was nationally ranked in college), intellectual, poet, and painter. Cann is also an avid tango enthusiast—he recently incorporated visual arts and the dance form into a project called Undressed. He's fluent in Spanish, and although his Japanese is slipping from lack of use, he can still get by.

Single minded and purpose driven, Cann is not so smug as to be unquestioning of his choices. "It was odd just now," he says, glancing at his own résumé, "to think, ‘Yes, this is what I do.' It doesn't say anything about walking into a knife fight, or taking someone to the hospital with a gunshot wound, but I guess those are the two worlds I straddle—that of the clients and the funders/volunteers. Sometimes it's walking out of one world, putting on a suit, and walking into another, but I hope our work has done something to bring the two worlds together."

Cann is charmingly without guile, and whether he is aware of it or not, to many, Cann is a hero. Ray Isaac describes him as a kind of archangel, and Isaac should know. Once a client (UMC refers to those they help as clients), now a part-time staff member of Community Works 945, Isaac is a success story whose long road to renaissance was mentored by Cann every step of the way. "You have to come at this job hard," Isaac says. "You can't be soft. Lawrence knows how to be hard when he has to."
"Just because folks are in need doesn't mean you can always have an authentic friendship," Cann concedes. "You have to set boundaries, but some of my best friends in the world are clients here. You wouldn't think that based on our backgrounds we'd have that much in common, yet we do. It's the underlying humanity of shared experience more than anything else."

Earlier this year, UNC-Charlotte's College of Architecture joined forces with UMC to offer a course called "Architecture as Activism." Led by professor Linda C. Samuels (who has since moved on to pursue her Ph.D.), Hawthorne, and Cann, the project combined the talents of faculty, staff, and volunteers to create Art Park, a community commons that incorporates a soccer field, gallery wall, exercise and performance spaces, and a garden. In the days ahead, Cann will help launch a homeless newspaper that will utilize the art, photography, and writing of UMC clients, and he has plans to write a book with Hawthorne and Samuels focusing on community intervention from an arts perspective. "Folks are looking for new ways to work with the homeless to build social capital," Cann says.

Cann has no formal training in social work. His focus in college was literature. "I was always fascinated by narrative," he says, "and passionate about poetry." Cann admits he didn't even take a painting class until his senior year, but he fell in love with it. His own work is most influenced by poets who also paint: "I became interested in the visual poetry movement in Latin America [via] Clemente Padin, an artist from Uruguay, whose motto was, ‘Artist in the service of the community,' " he says. "Then I came here, and this whole program became my art project." As the center has grown, Cann has taken on an increasingly administrative role, but he hopes to find time to get back to his own artwork, for which, he says, he has serious ambitions. This spring, he is planning the first large exhibition of his work. "It's about being part of the community."

The Chinese philosopher Lau Tzu said, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." By giving the homeless a means of self-expression through art, gardening, and soccer, Lawrence Cann has taught them how to nourish their self-respect and feed their souls, and has given them tools to build a bridge from life on the street back into society. "He's a mediator between the ways of the street and the ways of culture, and somehow is able to translate between the two," Hawthorne says. "The program works because of him, because he believes in it, because it is a part of who he is, not just what he does."


Categories: People