On a sunny spring day in April, Jim Hallenbeck went to Moore Square to find inspiration for his next painting.
He wanted to do a series of paintings of homeless people with Raleigh landmarks as backdrops. Influenced by his time as a board member for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, his mission was twofold: create awareness of our community’s homeless problem and to sell the paintings, so he could donate some of the proceeds to organizations who can help the hungry and homeless.
He approached various people, asking to take a photo as source material for the painting. He kept getting turned down, until he met Christiana Harris.
If you’ve been through Moore Square any time in the past decade or two, you might have noticed Harris, too. She wears her burgundy baseball cap turned backward with a tan piece of fabric covering it, tied under her chin. Her arms are stacked with bangles, and you can’t help but see her silver baseball bat. It’s always with her. On the day Hallenbeck met her, it was poking out from her ubiquitous grocery cart, which also contained a suitcase, blanket and collapsed cardboard box.
Understandably, she was skeptical when Hallenbeck asked if he could take her picture. After all, she’s lived on and off on the streets for at least 20 years. And there’s a reason she keeps a metal bat by her side.
She agreed to the photo, though, as she stood on the sidewalk, leaning over her cart, as buses picked up and dropped off passengers across the street. Hallenbeck took a few photos, gave her $10 and thanked her for her time. The entire encounter lasted maybe 10 minutes.
This spring, Hallenbeck painted an 24”-by-36” canvas of Harris standing in front of the large bronze acorn sculpture in Moore Square, the one that gets dropped at midnight on New Year’s Eve. To him, the acorn symbolizes good things and hope for a new year. He thought the juxtaposition with Harris, who looks like she’s thinking hard about something, seemed appropriate.
“It’s a face that doesn’t look happy,” said Hallenbeck, who is fulfilling his dream of being an artist after a lengthy career at IBM.
But, he adds, “In her eyes, maybe there’s some hope.”
He had hope for her, too. Over the next several months, he looked for her when he drove through the Moore Square area. He wondered how she was doing, especially when he stopped seeing her.
Little did he know, good things were on the way for the subject of his painting. And that painting? Well, it would find its way to the walls of Harris’ new home.
A life on the streets
Harris, who is 68, doesn’t reveal much about her background, just that she’s spent much of her life walking the streets, sleeping on steps and popping in and out of shelters. She has two adult sons who she doesn’t have contact with, and her sole source of income is the $733 she receives each month for disabilities.
“It’s rough,” she said in her soft-spoken voice. “If you don’t know how to survive.”
Harris is not one to trust easily. When she smiles, that signals her approval, but you get the sense those smiles only come after they’ve been earned.
Harris once lived in Chavis Heights, the former public housing development in southeast Raleigh that’s been redeveloped as part of the area’s transformation. She references those days a lot, seemingly with fondness. Then, she had her own space.
“When I got back to Chavis Heights, them kids would be out there playing,” she said. “ ‘Here comes Grandma,’ they say.”
The streets of Raleigh eventually became her home, as they are to 1,170 Wake County residents any given night, according to 2014 data from the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness.
Arlene Smith, a case manager and intake coordinator at the Raleigh Rescue Mission, and Jean Ward, the mission’s emergency overnight supervisor, were keeping an eye on Harris. They went out into the streets to find her on cold nights and let her sleep at the mission, even if a bed wasn’t available. Harris spent a year there when she fell ill.
Smith feels her calling is to help the homeless, especially the older homeless population. Over the years, Harris started to feel comfortable with Smith, who took her to doctor’s appointments and met Harris on her own terms, near her frequent resting spot at a bed of flower shrubs in Moore Square.
“I told her I wanted to help her find housing,” Smith said.
“People always say that, but they don’t always follow through,” Harris told her.
“I said, ‘I will follow through,’ ” Smith said.
Between Smith and Ward, they spent a year submitting applications, getting paperwork together and meeting Harris by the flowers to sign papers.
In July, Harris got her own place for the first time in 20-some years. Smith, Ward and Ward’s husband took Harris grocery shopping. They went to the Green Chair Project, which provides donated furnishings to those getting a fresh start, so Harris could pick out a bed, lamps, linens and a small dining set.
They helped her get set up in a one-bedroom apartment in Wintershaven, an income-based housing development downtown for seniors and those with disabilities.
“She was grinning,” Smith said as Harris walked through the door.
Back to the painting
Hallenbeck, 58, thought years ago he would be an artist, and he earned a degree in art education in 1979. But plans changed after his father got a job at IBM, and Hallenbeck took a temporary job there while he completed his degree. The temporary job became full time.
He spent 35 years with IBM, leaving last September as vice president of supply chain. IBM sold his division to Lenovo, where he stayed until he retired this January.
Throughout his career, he set his art aside, only completing eight or so paintings. Since he retired, he’s done more than 35 in the art studio he’s created in his North Raleigh home.
Last month, he was showing his work at the 2nd Sunday City mARTket Fair when his wife, Lisa Lofchie, started talking with David O’Neil. The topic of Hallenbeck’s painting, now titled “I Have a Name: Christiana and the Acorn,” came up.
To everyone’s surprise, O’Neil is the evening and weekend manager at Wintershaven, and he recognized Harris. As soon as he got back to Wintershaven, he showed her a text message with a photo of the painting.
“Honestly, her face lit up,” O’Neil said. “It was a beautiful moment.”
Hallenbeck, relieved to hear that Harris now has an apartment, wanted her to have a copy of the painting to hang in her new place. (He entered the original work in a juried art show at Village Art Circle in Cary and still hopes to sell it so he can donate the proceeds to homeless causes.)
Earlier this week, Harris agreed to meet Hallenbeck and his wife, O’Neil, Smith and myself at the acorn in Moore Square, where it all began.
Harris said she doesn’t remember having her photo taken by Hallenbeck.
As she sat next to Hallenbeck on a bench, she told us it’s taken some time to get adjusted to being in her own place again and making it feel like home. She could use some more furniture, like a couch, living room chairs and a bigger table.
She has some artwork, though. O’Neil hung Hallenbeck’s painting in the living room where it can be seen upon entering the apartment.
“I asked her three days ago, ‘Are you still enjoying the painting?’ ” O’Neil said.
“I look at it every day,” she replied.