GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — ArtPrize is about more than just art. Many artists use it as a way to educate or to get a message across.

One such exhibit is sponsored by Mel Trotter Ministries in Grand Rapids’ Heartside District. The exhibit invites you to walk in the shoes of the homeless.

Rufus Alexander knows the path well. Life once took him down it.

“I shot drugs in my arms for years. Went to prison, came home and started smoking crack,” the 68-year-old Alexander said as he walked through the exhibit in the park across from Mel Trotter Ministries on Commerce Avenue SW. “I can relate to sleeping outside on a park bench, wearing the same clothes for maybe two or three weeks.”

Now five years clean and sober, he credits programs at Mel Trotter for his success in sobriety and life. He has his own business, owns his own car and lives in his own home.

“I got a line of credit. I wanted to do better,” Alexander said. “It’s hope. But you got to want to stay clean, and that’s the individual’s choice, a day at a time.”

The exhibit aims to educate.

“It looks and feels very different. Often times, many times, (homelessness is) not what people expect it to be,” said Beth Fischer, chief advancement officer for Mel Trotter Ministries.

She said common criticisms of those who are homeless are often mired in misinformation, like when people wonder why they don’t get a job. The truth is that many do work.

“You see behind me on that exhibit, where is says that a single parent needs to work 77 hours a week on minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom apartment. They’re the working poor,” Fischer said.

Another step on the path shows that some people who become homeless don’t run out of money, they run out of relationships.

“Here you see in this exhibit of a teenager who is couch surfing. And doesn’t have relationships in place. There’s no relationships for this individual to continue to find a roof over his head,” Fischer said of the mockup of a bedroom with a teen sleeping on a couch.

A Walk in Their Shoes, the ArtPrize 2022 exhibition at Mel Trotter Ministries. (Sept. 16, 2022)
A Walk in Their Shoes, the ArtPrize 2022 exhibition at Mel Trotter Ministries. (Sept. 16, 2022)

Next to it is a recreation of a teen with his head down on a classroom desk.

“So they go to school, but you can see, this depicts a student who is falling asleep in the classroom because obviously, he’s not able to have a good night’s sleep, because he has no place to land,” Fischer said.

The exhibit also hopes to show that while homelessness is a chronic problem, it’s not a chronic condition. Rufus Alexander is proof.

“You gotta know the heartbeat of the city to be able to relate to someone that’s homeless,” Alexander said.