Daniel Burnett's mural at Brothers K Coffeehouse. (Photo provided by Daniel Burnett)

Daniel Burnett began drawing as a child as an outlet for his stress. Decades later, his artistic journey has aided him in healing, recently, from his father’s death.

Burnett was commissioned to paint a mural at Brothers K Coffeehouse on Main Street that is a tribute to his father, George, who spent parts of his life homeless. Around the same time, anti-panhandling signs went up around Evanston discouraging people from giving money to those on the street asking for help.

While Burnett said the signs were not his inspiration for the piece, they played an important role in shaping his thought process with reconciling with his father’s death and homeless status.

Dozens of anti-panhandling signs have gone up on Evanston’s streets and in businesses windows. (Photo by Sam Stroozas) Credit: Sam Stroozas

“Growing up in Evanston, there has always been a class divide,” Burnett said. “Just growing up in a working-class family that didn’t have a ton of money, I noticed it. It is embedded in the fabric of Evanston and runs deep. In the notion of the homeless, when you dig into the complexity of it, is not just people not having a home or job. There are mental health issues, drug issues and societal pressures that push people.”

In addition to the anti-panhandling signs, Evanston has also been in debate about Margarita Inn, where the nonprofit Connections for the Homeless began sheltering vulnerable people two years ago during the beginning of the pandemic. Connections wants to take over the hotel permanently and will need to apply for a new permit involving a public hearing with the land use commission and a vote by the City Council.

Daniel Burnett at summer camp in Wisconsin with his father and another camper. (Photo provided)

Burnett described his father as a vagabond of sorts, a man on the outskirts of Evanston, never fully included or accounted for – but still with incredible depth. He said because of his experiences with his father, he looks at the homelessness experience differently and wonders what other lives homeless people may have lived. By doing this, he says, it changes the way people view those who are unhoused.

As Burnett would paint his mural and take breaks he would see the familiar image of his father, asking for money or wandering the streets near Main Street, and that’s when he decided to include the ghost of his father in his mural.

“The last time I ever saw my dad, he was homeless and living out of his car,” Burnett said. “He checked himself into a city hospital and then hung himself.”

Burnett’s father struggled with mental health problems and addiction in addition to being unhoused. After his death in 2007, there was a memorial service at the Teaching Drum camp in rural Wisconsin. Burnett’s piece includes the logo and abstract landscape from the camp and in the upper-right corner is his father, the ghost, watching from a distance. 

“On the surface, I want it to read as happy and fantastical but when you dig into it you realize there is depth and complexity, struggle and tragedy that the homeless face,” he said. “Some people are deeply uncomfortable with homeless people and to see the evidence of what our society spits out.”

Burnett’s work can be seen here.

Sam Stroozas

Sam Stroozas is a reporter and the social media manager at the Evanston RoundTable. She covers small businesses, social justice and human interest stories. Contact her at sam@evanstonroundtable.com and...

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