Meet the Man Who Raises Money for the Homeless by Painting Their Portraits

A picture really is worth a thousand words

Brian Peterson with portraits of friendsPhotograph by Josh Ritchie
Brian Peterson with portraits of friends

It all started with a simple question: “Can I paint your portrait?”

In the summer of 2015, Brian Peterson and his wife, Vanessa, had just moved to Santa Ana, California. Outside the couple’s fourth-floor apartment, an unkempt homeless man was often yelling on the street corner, sometimes keeping them awake at night. Peterson, 28, would pass the guy on his way to his job as a car designer at Kia Motors, but they never spoke. What could they possibly have in common?

One day, Peterson was relaxing in his living room, reading the book Love Does, about the power of love in action, when his quiet was disturbed by the homeless man. Inspired by the book’s compassionate message, Peterson made an unexpected decision: He was going to go outside and introduce himself.

In that first conversation, Peterson learned that the man’s name was Matt Faris. He’d moved to Southern California from Kentucky to pursue a career in music, but he soon fell on hard times and ended up living on the street for more than a decade.

“It was the weirdest thing to me,” Peterson recalled later on the podcast Top Artist. “I saw beauty on the face of a man who hadn’t shaved in probably a year, had overgrown fingernails, probably hadn’t had a shower in close to a year. But his story, the life inside of him, inspired me.” And even though Peterson, a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art, hadn’t picked up a paintbrush in about eight years, he found himself asking if he could paint Faris’s portrait. Faris said yes.

Peterson’s connection with Faris led him to form Faces of Santa Ana, a nonprofit organization focused on befriending and painting portraits of members of the community who are unhoused. Working from a black-and-white photo of the subject taken with his phone, Peterson chooses ­colors inspired by the subject’s personality and life story, creating a poignant portrait. He showed one man winning his battle with alcoholism, for example, by transitioning the colors from a somber blue to a brilliant scarlet.

Peterson sells the paintings and puts proceeds into “love accounts.”

Peterson sells the vibrant 30-by-40-inch canvas—signed by both subject and artist—for a few thousand dollars, splitting the proceeds and putting half into what he calls a “love account” for his model. He then helps people use the money to get back on their feet.

Many of Peterson’s new friends use the donations to secure immediate necessities—medical care, hotel rooms, food. But Peterson has learned not to make assumptions about what a person needs most. “I’ve made so many mistakes thinking I knew what people wanted,” he says. “Then I realized: Why don’t we just ask them?”

Faris used the funds from his portrait to record an album, fulfilling his musical dreams. Another subject, Kimberly Sondoval, had never been able to financially support her daughter. She asked, “Can I use the money to pay my daughter’s rent?” When the check was delivered, “they both wept in my arms,” Peterson recalls.

In the eight years since Faces of Santa Ana was established, Peterson, who now lives in Miami with his wife and children, has formed a new nonprofit called Faces of Mankind, a collective of artists who are creating portraits of people experiencing homelessness around the country.

Peterson has painted 41 of these portraits himself. But there’s more to the finished products than the money they bring to someone who’s down and out. He’s discovered that the buyers tend to connect to the story of the person in the painting, finding similarities and often friendship with someone they might have otherwise overlooked or stereotyped.

“People often tell me, ‘I was the one that would cross the street. But I see homeless people differently now,’ ” Peterson says. “I didn’t know that would happen.”

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest