Art Aids the Homeless in Great Britain
By Anthea Gerrie
They sleep on the streets, under bridges, or—if they are lucky—in hostels with few creature comforts. But however bleak their nights, dawn brings the prospect of a bright room, a blank canvas on which to tell their roller-coaster stories, and a rainbow of colors with which to create a vision of hope.
Britain’s homeless are not only being helped toward finding shelter but also having their creative spirits nourished by a couple of the nation’s most innovative charities. They offer free classes in a whole spectrum of creative pursuits as well as a forum for showing clients’ work and grants to support the most talented through art school.
“Art has the power to change lives and rebuild them,” says Richard Lee, director of fund-raising for Crisis, a charity best known for bringing in the homeless at Christmas to be given a warm bed and a hot meal, offered a haircut and other personal services, and given copious advice to help them get off the streets.
What is less well known is that for several years Crisis has been offering free year-round classes in painting, drawing, photography, creative writing, and even millinery and music production through its Skylight centers across Britain. Even during lockdown, the charity kept the classes going via tablets and phones lent to clients who also received care packages of art materials to keep their creative juices flowing. “People may think of art as frivolous or a luxury, but this year has taught us all that creative expression is an innate human need,” says Kellie Gamble, an arts coordinator for Crisis who applied for her job because she was “bowled over there was an organization that considered art such an important part of its offering.”
So convinced is another charity, Accumulate, of the transformative power of creativity, it styles itself as “the art school of the homeless.” They have just published a graphic novel by clients who tell their stories and depict dramatic snapshots of their inner lives: here a trapped animal sprouting wings in hope of escape, there a creature waving frantically for help while drowning. Others who lost their homes tell the gamut of circumstances, from fleeing abusive families to escaping political persecution, which forced them onto the streets. “There are so many misconceptions about people who are homeless . . . they wanted to say this is not the truth,” says Marice Cumber, a former London highflier who founded Accumulate in 2013 and led the successful bid to crowdfund The Book of Homelessness.
“It took me out of the hostel and got me out of a few mental health difficulties.”
One contributor, Amalia Walrond, who fell into a downward spiral after becoming estranged from her family, has no doubt about the power of getting her story onto the page to lift her up. “It took me out of the hostel and got me out of a few mental health difficulties,” she says. “I have been able to feel more socially connected to people.” Walrond is one of several Accumulate clients accepted into an access course at Ravensbourne University, home of one of England’s top art schools, which for many has led to full-time study for a degree.
Between them, Crisis and Accumulate have put dozens of their clients through art school with scholarships or grants. However, the principal aim of both charities is to offer a route to rebuilding self-confidence and engaging with the world. “Some people may engage with us for a couple of weeks, others for a couple of years,” says Gamble. But, she emphasizes, it’s what they take away from even just one session that counts: “Tutors aim to ensure that attending a Skylight class is never a wasted opportunity.” The benefit can be as basic as a person who has lived so long without friends or family making their first social contact in months or years with the instructor or a classmate. For those who take the next step, picking up a brush or stick of charcoal “can be a gentler way of letting down some of the barriers they feel than telling their story for the millionth time,” she explains.
Those who persevere gradually reacquire the essential life skills so many have lost, like the ability to collaborate. “Making street art and murals together for public spaces is a massive part of what we do, and it involves each member of the group in communicating and problem-solving as well as learning to advocate for themselves,” adds Gamble.
The bold assertion that art has the capability to end homelessness was made by Crisis as they launched a new initiative, Art for Crisis, for collectors who are being sent high-quality, carefully curated artwork at regular intervals with booklets telling the stories of the makers and their inspirations.
The Tutor, the first such work to be sent out in a presentation box, is a fine art print by a man called Thomas; the brilliantly colored portrait evokes De Kooning, Munch, and other masters of figurative expressionism. These famous names may well have been known to a painter who made art years ago in another life before circumstances threw him onto the streets.
After hearing about the art classes at a Crisis Christmas center, Thomas joined in a bid to reconnect with his lost passion; he started by sketching buildings and passersby before turning to oils and the loose, vibrant explosion that has caused his work to be selected for exhibition elsewhere.
Next to be featured is Ali, a refugee whose painting depicts a hot chocolate bought for him by a friend in the café at London’s National Gallery. “In that moment I felt happy again; I went into my Crisis class the next day and made a painting to reflect the happiness and optimism I’d started feeling,” he recalls. Once on staff at Iran’s Persepolis Museum, Ali has since joined other Crisis clients in leading tours of works with special meaning for them at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, one of several art institutions with which the charity has formed a partnership.
It’s the power of art to reconnect with society that Lee believes makes nurturing the creative spirit as fundamental an offering from Crisis as a warm bed or a hot drink. “Homelessness can be very isolating, and you can quickly feel invisible to the world around you,” he explains. “Our classes provide a space for people to express themselves and start to feel fulfilled and reconnected.”
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This story is the first in a series of editorial looks into the plight of homeless people around the world and the organizations and individuals who are helping them find their way. Stay tuned in future issues of VIE and at VIEmagazine.com for more.