Sonja Kever’s oil portraits paint fresh perspective on homelessness in Austin

Landry Allred

In 2015, Sonja Kever spent a year working on her Street Stories project, during which she painted 32 oil portraits of the homeless population in Austin. She raised over $27,000 through several events and donated all profits to organizations providing services to people without a permanent home. Now, her art remains displayed around Austin to continually raise awareness of community homelessness.

Before the idea’s origin in early 2014, Kever had been painting for 10 years but said she lost her focus. This lasted until Rev. John Elford — the senior pastor at University United Methodist Church — preached on God’s gifts to people and the importance of using them.

“I just thought, ‘He is talking to me, saying you can use your gifts,’ which, to me, was painting,” Kever said.

After developing the idea, she set a goal to paint 30 portraits in one year, having 10 to 14 days to paint each one. The two extra paintings resulted from people asking to be painted.

She began attending the church’s weekly breakfast service for the homeless and befriended the people she would later paint. As each week passed, she became comfortable enough to drive to street corners and speak with homeless individuals. In each interaction, she shared her project, photographed the person, gave $20 for a sitting fee and returned home to paint.

“There were many days I drove home with tears streaming down my face (from) the stories they would tell me,” Kever said. “I just thought, ‘I have been so blessed, and I’m so grateful for an opportunity to give back.’”

Her profits benefited many organizations, including two church programs, the Trinity Center and Front Steps. Front Steps communications director Kay Klotz said the lack of affordable housing often causes homelessness. She said very few people can afford $700 in rent, much less $1,000.

“If they’re on social security or disability, that’s probably the size of their monthly income,” Klotz said. “After paying rent, there’s not a lot of money for food, utilities and everything else it takes to live in an apartment.”

The gap between rent and income pushes many to live on the streets. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2,036 people are homeless on any night in Travis County.

Although the issue of homelessness is prominent in Austin, Elford said many are unaware of the challenges associated with homelessness unless you experience it firsthand. He said Kever’s portraits remind others of these individuals’ humanity.

“(The homeless) have dignity. They’re deserving of respect. They have the same hopes we have, the same dreams, the same hurts and loves,” Elford said. “They’re trying to make their way in the world, and it’s hard for them.”

Kever aimed to display this humanity, as she would completely paint the person’s eyes first.

“Every time I sat down at the easel, I wanted to look into those eyes and see that there was a person there and the beauty and dignity in the faces I was painting,” Kever said. “No matter how hard their lives have been, they still had hope.”