Portland State University instructor Kacy McKinney has used comics to teach in her classroom, written about them academically, and made them herself. Now she's bringing local organizations together with indie artists to tell stories about homelessness, and what it means to cope with food and housing insecurity, through an 80-page full color comic.

Changing the Narrative is a collaborative project headed by McKinney and made in partnership with Street Roots, the Independent Publishing Research Center, and the Downstairs Gallery. McKinney and her team produced ten comic narratives about PSU students who had, at some point, dealt with what it meant to experience homelessness.

“What resonated with me the most was the need for dignity, respect, and humanizing stories,” says McKinney, herself a graduate of the IPRC’s Comics Studies certificate program and until last year president of Sisters of the Road’s board of directors.

McKinney and her team put out a call to students on campus to share their stories, and heard from fifty-five students who, at some point, had struggled with homelessness or housing instability. They chose ten students for in-depth interviews.

Those interviews, which usually lasted about three hours, formed the basis for documents the team gave to artists. “It was research about students that got turned into comics,” McKinney said.

“During the interviews the students knew that their stories were going to be turned into comics, so we did the interviews trying to draw visual information,” McKinney said.

The project kept the identity of its student subjects anonymous, though some of the artists did get a chance to meet with the students themselves.

The finished comics, all produced by different artists, vary in both content and style. One is like a guidebook, instructing readers on how to live outside and survive homelessness over a long period of time. Another details a student’s escape from a domestic violence situation, and how they eventually found shelter.

Homelessness is a fact of life for many PSU students. According to a report by Portland State’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative administered in the fall of 2019, 16.1 percent of students had experienced homelessness in the year prior. Additionally, 44.6 percent had experienced housing insecurity in the 12 months beforehand, and 47 percent had experienced food insecurity in the previous month.

Faculty like McKinney knew that homelessness and housing insecurity was an issue for PSU students, but were surprised at the extent of it. “It was dramatic,” she says. “A lot of us would expect students to have some housing instability in a high-priced area like Portland, but it went beyond that.”

The comics were put on display at an art show at PSU, and a print run of 4,000 copies was sold and distributed via Street Roots vendors. “They sold out in two weeks,” says McKinney, “which we did not anticipate.”

UPDATE: The second printing of Changing the Narrative will be available from Street Roots vendors, starting Wed, March 16. Like the first run, it will be sold by Street Roots vendors until they sell out of copies.

Check out art work and original pages from Changing the Narrative through Thurs March 31 at First Presbyterian Church, 610 SW 13th, Tues-Thurs 10am - 4pm; Sun 11:30am - 1pm, the exhibit is free and ADA accessible through the underground parking garage.