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Art in a time of crisis

October 05 2016
A growing number of charities are fighting the homeless crisis with the help of art projects, finds Lynton Guest.

No one reading this needs me to tell them about the problems homeless people face. What may be surprising, however, is that when you are homeless, art can play a part in helping you move on with your lives.

Maybe this shouldn’t really be a source of amazement. After all, art in all its various incarnations is supposed to mirror human existence, from the best to the worst, and everything in between.

Yet the profile of artworks that highlight homelessness often goes under the radar.

This is something that a number of organisations and individuals up and down the country are seeking to change.

The Booth Centre, based in Manchester, which offers everything from practical advice to hot food, is just one of them. Janine Obermaier, who runs the centre’s activities programme, explained: “When someone goes into accommodation following a period of homelessness, they need ongoing support to try to make sure the problems that made them homeless in the first place don’t recur”.

“So part of our approach is to run a wide range of activities, especially in the arts, which can replace destructive behaviour like drug addiction and alcoholism, and offer realistic goals which can be achieved.”

The Booth Centre’s range of artistic classes is certainly wide: from fine art, opera and theatre, through a guitar club, mosaics, photography and crafts. “We find a huge amount of talent exists”, Janine continued.

The homeless charity Crisis, based in London but with operations in numerous cities including Edinburgh, also runs arts programmes and puts on an annual exhibition of artistic work by homeless people. This year it was called Art in Crisis. Two years ago, it ran the Crisis Commission, which saw paintings by award-winning artists including Martin Creed and George Shaw exhibited alongside works by homeless people themselves.

According to art critics at the time, you couldn’t tell the difference between the professional and amateur work on show.

Their programme aims to help people mend shattered self-esteem, something that happens all too often when you spend too long on the streets, and help people build new routines. Some have even made money from their art.

There are many more organisations offering similar programmes. But it’s not just organised activities that help.

On the streets of Dorchester, I spoke to a woman who asked to be called Jean, who told me she had been homeless for three years. I heard her singing with no accompaniment and there was no doubt she had a beautiful voice.

“I sang in choirs as a child and even in a couple of bands when I was older,” she said. “Then I sort of gave up. Not long after that I became homeless after a lot of family and personal problems.”

Jean decided one day to busk, made quite a lot of money on that first day, so she continued coming back. “Now,” she says, “I am actually saving some of the money. If I keep this up, I will be able to find somewhere to live and even support myself. And people seem to like my singing, which makes me feel really good.”

Put it this way: the positivity the arts can generate in all sorts of people shows what is possible and what can be achieved. And everyone deserves that chance.


Where to go

CrisisSkylight Centres run in London, Birmingham, Coventry, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Newcastle, Oxford, Sheffield. 0300 636 1967

The Booth Centre, Manchester, runs a wide range of arts projects and classes. 0161 835 2499

Café Art is a London café running photography exhibitions by homeless people

The Choir with No Nameoperates in London, Birmingham and Liverpoo. 0207 202 6647/8

Streetwise Opera is a London-based opera group. 0207 730 9551

Raised Voices is an Edinburgh drama group (see our website for feature)