A display for the Changing The Narrative project at PSU's Native American Student & Community Center. Kat Leon/PSU Vanguard

Changing the narrative of houselessness through comics 

PSU collaborative research project changes view of houseless individuals

Changing the Narrative is a research project with a purpose. The program seeks to change the way the general public views the houseless population by creating graphic novels based on the lived experience of people who have experienced houselessness. Dr. Kacy McKinneya Portland State professor and lead researcher for Changing the Narrativesaid the project is “[a] collaborative, community and arts-based research project that seeks to change the ways that we talk, think and teach about houselessness and poverty.” 


McKinney saw houselessness and housing insecurity firsthand in her classrooms at PSU, where several of her students struggled with these issues. A Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative (HRAC) study conducted in 2019 revealed that 44.6% of students that participated in the HRAC study experienced housing insecurity within 12 months of taking the survey—and 16.1% were or had been houseless. The study outlined the need for an urgent response since housing insecurity can be a significant barrier to education for many students.


Changing the Narrative seeks to transform perspectives on housing, and make research profound through more accessible presentation in comic form. 


“I think it is really important to start a conversation about redefining what research is and what is considered valid and what is considered valuable research,” said research assistant Kimberléa Reffu during the PSU panel presentation. “Because often research is inaccessible to the public.”


The project attempts to correct the current public discourse around homelessness, which McKinney believes are incredibly harmful to individuals and communities. 


“[These discourses are] stigmatizing, stereotyping, denying dignity and respect,” McKinney said. “[They are] influencing policy and how we treat one another.”


The idea to make Changing the Narrative a comic came from a similar project called El Viaje Más Caro, or The Most Costly Journey, which is a comic that tells the story of migrant farmworkers in Vermont. 


Comics provide a unique and digestible way of telling and understanding the stories of others. They also allow greater reader identification with the characters, given their immersive nature. Scott McCloudauthor of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Artsaid, “When you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself.” 


Researchers chose ten PSU students that had faced housing insecurity, houselessness and poverty to participate in three interviews. After the interviews were completed, the participants’ stories were given to the artists. According to McKinney, nearly all of the interviewees gave multiple iterations of feedback to different drafts.


Trauma-informed interviews were of utmost importance to the researchers. Shawn Hardy, a research assistant on the project, explained the importance of sensitivity during the PSU panel. 


“It is up to the interviewee to give their stories to us,” Hardy said. “We can’t force them to disclose anything that they would be uncomfortable with or find triggering… so their narrative is very much their narrative.”


The artists on the project were intentional with their work, doing their best to create something that would be relatable to the reader. Marin Jurgens, artist for the comic Toward Light, stated in an interview with Street Roots that it is the beauty of comics that can achieve this. 


“You can really speak about issues that are very serious, but in a way that people may be more susceptible to learning about,” Jurgens said. “In the end, I definitely realized how powerful comics and graphic novels can be in that way.”


In Jurgens’ art, we follow the story of a woman named Star as she becomes houseless after leaving an abusive relationship in order to protect her baby daughter Light. Light is the only aspect that creates any color on the panels in the foremost part of Star’s story. Jurgens said that the portrayal of Star’s daughter was meant to serve as the source of not just happiness, but strength, throughout the comic.


Some of the comics in the project chose to acknowledge and focus on the inevitable tragedy, as Jurgens did in Light’s story. McKinney said that some of these themes repeated themselves throughout the project.


“We saw in [the stories] common threads of injustice and oppression, [a] lack of support system and services, and the overwhelming lack of affordable housing in the area for students,” she said.


Other artists chose to take a more tragicomic approach, often as a way to represent the student’s personality. Christina Tranartist of Caldo pa’la Cruda, a comic about a woman named Danielasaid in her interview with Street Roots that the character’s energy and outlook are purposefully vibrant. 


“The way she tells her story included bits of humor, so I really wanted to incorporate that into the comic and show her personality,” Tran said.


The story follows Daniela as she grows up experiencing poverty, housing insecurity and houselessness. A few memories detailed include a time when cockroaches crawled out of her household’s toilet paper rolls, or when a knife fell on her leg when she was nine because her parents used it to mud a wall. While these are challenging experiences, the comical illustrations capture the view of Daniela in these memories, and support how she chose to tell them.


Tran said she owed this ability to the medium of comics in general. 


“[Comics] allow for a kind of intimacy with the storytelling that’s also really accessible,” she said.  


To get the comics out to the general public, the team from PSU partnered with Street Roots, who printed and distributed the comic through their vendors. Editorial Producer Kanani Cortez noted their popularity at the PSU panel.


“[The comics] sold like hot cakes,” Cortez said. “They sold like fried chicken.” 


The PSU and the Street Roots team are currently looking for more ways to make the comic books accessible to the public. 


The stories told in the project’s comics demand that some readers interact with worlds outside their current comprehension, while other readers can see pieces of themselves portrayed in art—maybe for the first time. 


In addition, the stories insist that people stop seeing the houseless as an inconvenience or as an annoyance and start seeing them as real people deserving of respect and dignity. Tran Cortez said that this is one of her goals with her work on the project: “I hope these stories keep helping people turn towards the real people behind the stories.”