Youth Homelessness Through the Eyes of an Artist


It’s no wonder activist artist Sam Kirk so perceptibly captures the true face of youth homelessness on the city streets. Born and raised on the South side of Chicago, Sam witnessed first-hand what homelessness looked like in her community. She gets what it’s like to be without a home when times get tough.

In her younger years, Sam stayed in a shelter with her mom and twin sister while her mother figured out the best way to care for their family, eventually moving them into safer housing. Sam was lucky. She had a strong parent standing by her side. Had she been alone, like the thousands of unaccompanied youth living in shelters and on the streets across the U.S. every day, life might have turned out differently for Sam.

Recognized nationally as one of the most prolific multidisciplinary artists currently on the art scene currently, Sam’s work is socially impactful and mind provoking. Do You See Me?, an exhibit of Sam’s most recent work, debuted in September in Chicago, calling attention to the plight of and raising funds for youth homelessness. 

“On a daily basis I encounter people suffering from homelessness. I wonder how many of them we actually see as humans. Do we see the debris and clutter that they often carry with them, or do we see the person for who they are?” says Sam, who identifies as a lesbian. “Some of the best conversations I have had have been with people of a lesser economic status. The stories they have to share will blow your mind.”

Sam Kirk painting. Photo by Karla Olvera
Sam Kirk painting. Photo by Karla Olvera

Noted for her vibrant, colorful art style, Sam draws from her own experiences and those of strangers to weave a storyline within her art to explore identity, community, culture, and every day life. With art studios in Chicago and Brooklyn, and frequent travels to various U.S. cities, Sam immerses herself into the culturally rich communities which surround her to gain insight into people’s lives. She soaks up the simple details, like a woman wearing hair curlers. Then, what may appear trivial, explodes on her canvas, causing the viewer to stop, take notice, and think.

Painting for a Cause

Sam’s concern for homeless youth is heartfelt. Drive through Pilsen, the predominantly Latino Chicago Neighborhood on the City’s lower westside, to witness one of Sam’s murals. In the center of the mural are typical Chicago neighborhood buildings representing community. A child is perched on a small hill in the foreground. Several single red rose-like balloons float through the scene. On either side of the mural, a skeleton sits; one releasing water from an open fire hydrant, the other leaning its back against a tree. A handwritten question is woven into the scene, Do you think balloons cry when you let them go? A message written much smaller, in the top right corner of the mural reads: With thousands of homeless youth in Chicago there has to be a way to stop letting them go

Do Balloons Cry When You Let Them Go? by Sam Kirk
Do Balloons Cry When You Let Them Go? by Sam Kirk

Sam explains the mural’s meaning:

“The balloons represent the delicacy of youth and how short-lived childhood is. Yet, we are able to easily let these kids go. The skeletons within the community depict how youth are disappearing from their communities and their culture—losing everything they need to grow up and to become a part of.”

Giving Back to the Community

Sam’s show Do You See Me? expands her views on youth homelessness with work consisting of original paintings, sketches, wood-cuts, and sculptures. Presented in partnership with Chicago LGBTQ newspaper, The Windy City Times, the exhibit proceeds benefit youth homeless projects of the Pride Action Tank, an organization dedicated to improving individuals and groups within the LGBTQIA community in the core areas of housing, health, safety, financial security, youth and aging.

Yet, this show is not the first time Sam’s work benefits LGBT youth homeless projects. Sam is a believer of giving back to the community and supporting the people who inspire her work. She created an online retail store called Provoke Culture ( to sell original art work, prints, and hand-crafted items from her collection, and from those artist wishing to use their art to help people. Sam donates 25% to 50% of the profits made from Provoke Culture to a variety of organizations she feels passionate about. Project Fierce is one such organization. The Chicago-based grassroots organization works to reduce LGBTQ youth homelessness in Chicago by providing transitional housing without the assistance of government funding. With Sam’s help and the help of many others, Project Fierce recently purchased a building on Chicago’s Southwest side and is preparing the space to house youth soon.

Theresa Volpe
Theresa is the Managing Editor of ProudYouth and a Board member for One Million Kids For Equality. In her role with ProudYouth, Theresa works with a team of volunteer copy editors and youth contributors to develop, improve, and implement ProudYouth editorial guidelines. She also helps youth contributors by offering journalistic advice to help them present their ideas in a coherent and logical way. She is one of two lesbian moms that challenged Illinois' ban on same-sex marriage in court. Theresa brings over 25 years of editorial and publishing experience to her role with ProudYouth.


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