It’s a narrow-minded assumption that the only thing that is needed to alleviate homelessness is homes.
Becoming homeless is a complex experience and is rarely just financial, with relationship breakdown, substance abuse, mental health issues and trauma often within the mix. As a result, it requires a composite and multi-faceted approach to solving. Support for those on the streets is not just about providing food and shelter, the alleviation of immediate physical problems, but improving the quality of life in the long term. The form this takes varies, but one area which has been shown to have significant positive effects is art. Be it acting, music, performance, painting, singing, film, writing or other forms, engaging in creative projects is beneficial in the path of rebuilding lives.
Homeless Link recently published a study exploring the place of creative arts in homeless communities, called Get Creative: Arts For All, and reported that ‘participation can be beneficial from a therapeutic and recreational perspective, as well as helping people to overcome wider issues and develop specific skills.’ It is this holistic and all-encompassing structure that makes working in the arts such a valuable pursuit for those on the streets. Katee Woods, Communications Manager at Create, a creative arts charity, says that ‘From the outside, food or shelter may seem like more important priorities but addressing social issues like isolation, self-esteem, and confidence play a key role in helping to break cycles of homelessness.’
Successful and long-term change is as much an emotional, social and psychological matter as a practical one.
The therapeutic benefits of art are well-documented, and with around seventy percent of homeless people experiencing some kind of mental health problem, arts offer a valuable tool. A space for inspiration and exploration is important for anyone, and can take on particular resonance for people who feel marginalised by society. Sarah Halsey, Learning Programme Co-ordinator at Providence Row tells me taking part in a creative activity provides people with the ‘opportunity to express themselves, their ideas and their experiences in a safe and welcoming environment.’
Being listened to and afforded the opportunity to tell your story is crucial to building self-esteem. Before Jack started attending Create he had lost all his confidence and was struggling with alcoholism. He said, ‘The workshops helped me get the difficulties of my life in perspective. They showed me that I am a valid person and that I’m allowed to have a point of view, and that even though I’ve had difficulties, the work that I was doing was excellent.’ Jack started running his own music workshops at the centre and is now training to be a counsellor.
Christoph from Open Cinema describe how arts help ‘create motivation, and inspiration’ and they see individuals ‘(re)connecting with a sense of purpose or vocation.’ This stimulation and sense of encouragement reinforces feelings of having a contribution to society, boosting confidence and having a profound effect on someone marginalised from society in so many ways. As well as providing an opportunity for participants to meet new people, spend time in a positive environment, develop interests, and distract themselves from immediate problems, and produce something new, there is a practical benefit to the capabilities being developed through participation.
All projects aim to help individuals to make and sustain positive changes in their lives, fostering skills that can be applied in the transition into a more stable lifestyle. Eventually most people on the streets want to be off them, and in work. Employment requires skills such as social interaction, communication, team work, presentation, project management and discipline, and many of the creative projects available aim to facilitate the development of such abilities. Providence Row integrate art to their Learning Programme, as part of the Recovery and Progression service which supports clients to increase their employability skills, improve their health and wellbeing, and reduce isolation and social exclusion. The organisers of the Homeless Film Festival measure achievement and success ‘if during a project we have managed to support the integration of marginalised and homeless affected people into a more long term secure lifestyle.’ It’s about life skills, developing confidence and resilience in the face of adversity.
Life can start to imitate art. ‘Taking on a new activity can be part of facing and meeting small challenges; small steps that result in facing bigger challenges in people’s lives.’ says Ellie Raymont, Marketing Manager at Streetwise Opera. ‘Coming to a session, singing, tackling opera, and singing a solo are all small challenges that can ultimately result in showing people what they are really capable of.’ There’s a pride which comes with producing something from start to finish, as well as a reassurance from the regularity and consistency of engagement from a group of people dedicated to working together. There’s a level of talent being exhibited, and some of Streetwise Opera’s productions have been critically lauded by The Times and other newspapers and shows ‘that whatever life throws at you, you can achieve great things.’
Whatever the creative pursuit and the artistic output it is this which is the real advantage of participation in the arts: the self belief and realisation of achievement. Pride in work and a sense of purpose are hugely important in envisaging a successful future and working towards that future.
– Francesca Baker
“Francesca Baker is curious about the world, eager to explore and experience it, and wholeheartedly believes that creativity helps the mind, soul and body.”
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