Formerly homeless families portrayed in art display

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit — Nefertiti Frazier saw the fear in her children’s eyes as they watched her being choked on the floor.

A domestic abuse victim for years, she knew in that moment she must escape from the father of her three children.

“I thought I was going to die in front of my kids,” said Frazier, 34. “I stayed with him for years because I was trying to keep up the image of a perfect family.”

She left with her children and moved in with various family members before eventually ending up at the homeless shelter COTS in January 2015.

After five months at the shelter, and over a year in transitional housing, she finally moved into her own rental house in December. She had worked off and on for 16 years at a sandwich chain and was able to enroll in culinary school. She now works at a Midtown restaurant, cooking and waitressing.

“I’m so proud of her,” said Hannan House Cafe owner Ruth O’Quin, seated in the restaurant on a recent afternoon. “She’s a hard worker, catches on real quickly, and she earns all the tips because the customers love her.”

Frazier’s journey from homelessness to the three-bedroom, two-bathroom house on Detroit’s east side is included in the “Art of Family” project sponsored by COTS, to be unveiled during its annual Soup City fundraiser at the Gem and Century Theatres on Thursday. The project paired five artists with five formerly homeless families, portraying them through photography, painting, poetry and songs. Photos and paintings will be displayed along with video of the families. All five families have been invited to the fundraiser.

Frazier’s family was paired with 19-year-old Hamtramck photographer Zach Elwart.

“After I found out what the project was all about I was immediately interested,” Elwart said. “I wanted to be a part of something bigger and meaningful, and this project with COTS was just that.”

He said over the course of a two-day photo shoot, he took hundreds of photos, editing them down to 30.

“For Nefertiti, the two things that stuck out to me were her love for cooking, food and her family,” he said. “I photographed her at her new job in Detroit where she is able to work in the kitchen cooking and preparing delicious food for people every day.

“I also had the privilege to take photos of her and her kids at home. They had breakfast together, played games, and went outside a bit. My goal was to show the closeness and intimacy of the family. And that no matter where you are in life, having family and those you love and cherish most by your side can be all you really need. ”

The goal of the project, said COTS chief development officer Frankie Piccirilli, is to “ help change the perception and assumptions of homelessness.”

“Homelessness is not always what it appears,” she said. “We wanted people to see our families for who they really are; beautiful, loving and resilient. We hoped the Art of Family would tell a story that people could relate to.”

COTS CEO Cheryl P. Johnson said they see 80 to100 children, typically 5 and younger, every day.

“They are our family; we are our sister’s keeper,” she said. “We’re here providing shelter, a warm meal and a chance to rebuild. We’ve always believed homelessness is solvable. Detroit can collectively work together to ensure families are safe, healthy and happy.”

Frazier praises the shelter’s New Beginnings program for domestic abuse victims for helping to change her life.

“I was beyond depressed,” she said. “I stayed in my room at the shelter all the time and did not want to participate in any activities.”

Before entering the shelter, she said that during a particularly low point, she had contemplated dropping her kids off at a police station.

“I love my kids so much, but I didn’t feel worthy enough to be their mother,” she said. With the help of a life coach, counseling and support groups, all provided by the shelter, she said her self-esteem improved.

On Friday, her house was transformed into a home.

The interior received a makeover with help from Humble Designs, a nonprofit helping families transitioning out of homeless shelters by providing furnishings and design services.

At the unveiling, Frazier exclaimed, “Oh, my God! This is fit for a queen.”

She crossed the threshold with her children, ages 4 to 11, while her fourth child, 2-year-old Kamiah Frazier, was carried sleeping by her brother, Stephen Johnson, 37.

The children walked from room to room, eyes wide, taking in everything ... until they reached their rooms.

“Wow, oh wow,” son Eric Cartwright exclaimed as he walked into his Spider-Man-themed bedroom filled with books and toys and a bean bag chair and another huge chair, his own bed and other decorations.

When he walked into the bedroom shared by sisters Sanna’ Cartwright, 11, and Imani Cartwright, 4, he said: “This room is so pink!” Sanna’ went straight for the nylon-stringed, hand-painted guitar exclaiming: “This is so beautiful. I can’t believe it’s mine.”

The girls marveled over a Barbie backpack, an Elsa doll from “Frozen” that sang, “Let It Go,” and many other features in their bedroom.

Their mom was overcome.

With tears streaming down her cheeks, she said, “Thank you, thank you so much. Now it feels like home.”

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