Driving through Skid Row in Los Angeles last weekend, Jon Linton spotted a man sitting in a wheelchair wearing only a hospital gown. "It was one of the most heartbreaking things I've ever seen," says Linton, a Phoenix photographer who advocates for people experiencing homelessness. "He didn't have shoes, and there was a stream of drool coming down the side of his mouth."
When Linton first spotted him, the man in the wheelchair sat completely still. "It almost looked like he could be dead," Linton recalls, "but he came to with a bit of coaxing." Linton gave the man a bottle of water and a hamburger, helping him unwrap the food, and propping the bottle up when the man couldn't grasp it. "He mouthed the words 'thank you,' but no sound came out of his lips.”
In Phoenix, Linton has been documenting the lives of people on the street since 2007. He also heads a nonprofit called the I Have a Name Project, which often uses art to raise awareness about homelessness. He’s held exhibitions, supported a local mural project, and launched a mobile homelessness project that delivers necessities likes socks and water to people in need.
The "Let's Be Better Humans" bus before Lalo Cota finished painting the exterior.
Recently, Linton embarked on a three-week road trip to deliver supplies to homeless people in several western states, driving a school bus donated by a family foundation for Seagram’s heir Adam Bronfman.
And before Linton left Phoenix, some of the city’s best-known artists helped him transform the bus into a kind of movable canvas.
Lalo Cota, whose murals painted with iconic skeletal imagery dot the downtown Phoenix landscape, painted the exterior of Linton’s Let’s Be Better Humans bus in bright blues, red, yellow, and orange. He included a quote from Bronfman on the front bumper: “It’s not okay to discard people.”
The phrase echoes a sentiment Linton recalls a homeless man named Michael sharing earlier this month, while Linton was driving the bus near Washington Street and 12th Avenue, an area the city of Phoenix has temporarily designated as a space for homeless people. “It’s more like a concentration camp,” Linton recalls the man saying.
Though there’s much work to be done here at home — “There’s more homelessness now than I’ve seen in 13 years,” Linton says of Phoenix — Linton’s also committed to spreading hope (and supplies) to those in other cities, as well.
Hence the bus. “Adam [Bronfman] found out that I wasn’t traveling to other places because my first bus was so old and run down,” Linton says. So Bronfman secured one for him.
Having the bus covered in artwork helps to draw attention to the mobile outreach program, but Linton says it’s more than that.
“This country has become so divided on so many fronts, from racial tensions to the disparity between the haves and the have-nots,” he says. “I could drive the bus around all day without ever delivering anything to homeless people, and it would still bring such an important message to people.”
Joe Willie Smith paints a seat for the "Let's Be Better Humans" bus.
The contributions of local artists extend into the interior of the bus, where nearly every surface is covered. JB Snyder painted panels for an interior section of the bus, using his signature style of curved intersecting lines and blocks of color. Joel Coplin, an artist who often paints portraits of people living on the streets surrounding his Phoenix studio, is one of several artists who painted seat backs.
Another prolific artist, Joe Willie Smith, found inspiration in Linton’s “Let’s Be Better Humans” mantra. “I painted hands of all different races, and underneath them there are blue profiles of humans that represent the world of spirits,” he says. “They’re beings of light who transmit energy flowing down over the world.”
Kristin Wesley relaxes with her work inside the "Let's Be Better Humans" bus.
Kristin Wesley, an artist whose tall wooden Friendly Flowers
with smiley faces are installed along Grand Avenue, painted part of an interior wall; she calls it “a beautiful way to break down those barriers and remind people how similar we all are at a basic human level.”
For artist Brian Boner, painting a flock of birds on the ceiling inside the bus was a full-circle moment. In 2016, he painted a Roosevelt Row mural featuring similar birds, which pays homage to people who’ve died while living on the streets. “They’re symbolic of the community moving together as one,” Boner says of the birds.
Robert Gentile with the seat he painted for the "Let's Be Better Humans" bus.
The artwork came together just days before Linton launched his first multicity trip with the new bus. He’s traveling alone, due to COVID-19 public health concerns, with a film crew documenting his work tagging along in another vehicle.
Linton filled the bus with supplies that he’ll be delivering in several cities, giving them directly to people living on the streets. The supplies include water, hygiene kits, umbrellas, socks, masks, and hand sanitizer.
Several artists, including Shela Yu, whose bright pink artwork surrounds the driver’s seat for the bus, helped to gather supplies. In Yu’s case, she called on community members to donate feminine hygiene products.
Several artists painted the backs of seats inside the "Let's Be Better Humans" bus.
At every stop, Linton pays members of the homeless community to help distribute these supplies. He’ll be handing out meals, as well, in places that include Los Angeles; San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; and Las Vegas.
For Linton, the artwork on the bus is one more way of helping people see the humanity in others. “No one should ever be homeless,” Linton says. “This country needs a message of hope and unity, and the bus can help me spread that message beyond Phoenix.”