Arts and homelessness during Covid-19

‘Stay home’ is good advice, but it depends on having a home to stay in. Across the world, millions of people do not, and their situation, already bad, has only become worse as life has gone indoors. The casual work on which many depended has gone, while shelters and outreach services are closed. In some places, authorities have provided temporary accommodation in hotels and community spaces. A French friend is working at state school where the dormitories now shelter homeless people. But that is just the first response. What are people to do when the pattern of their lives has been turned upside down? Spending time alone in a hotel room may keep a person physically safe, but might be very hard for anyone with mental health problems, addictions or simply needing social contact. Arts organisations who work with homeless people have moved quickly to find ways of continuing their support in other ways.

Union Chapel, is a music venue, a church and a homelessness project all in one historic London building. Having had to cancel all events and close the venue to the public, the team have diverted their energies into emergency community support, in partnership with Islington Council, the Museum of Homelessness, Streets Kitchen and others. They are a donation point for food, clothing, toiletries and bedding, and and until recently provided a night shelter. At the same time, they are providing befriending and advice through telephone support,  arts outreach work for people who use their Culture Cafe and online workshops for music students. They are planning to to launch more online content soon.

Streetwise Opera, about whom I’ve written before, have suspended their workshops and other activities, but have tried to maintain contact with all their members. They are in touch with about 135 people in five regions mostly by phone, but also online. In addition to many practical problems, people are anxious about the disease and struggling with boredom, so Streetwise Opera is running a daily online music workshop through a closed Facebook group for performers, but members of the public can join in at 12pm each day (link), and twice-weekly tea-breaks on Zoom. Workshop DVDs have been posted to participants who can’t access the internet and they are developing creative activities for packs to be posted to participants without online access over the coming weeks. This is vital work in helping people to cope with isolation:

Streetwise Opera, Manchester (Photo Ray Trombetta)

“There’s something lovely about knowing we’re all singing the same lines, at the same time; even though I’m having no contact with anyone at the moment, it makes me feel less alone. Thank you for continuing to keep us in touch with one another. It makes a big difference to my life, such as it is at the moment. Thanks and take care all of you there. You are very, very special to more people than you could ever know.”

Feedback from a Streetwise Opera member

With One Voice, an international movement that aims to strengthen the arts and homelessness sector, has likewise had to shift into an urgent register. They are seeing new interest in the arts from social services looking for creative activities to support people staying in hotels. Here the the priority is books, art materials and activities that can be posted door-to-door, keeping contact with people who have health issues that keep them indoors. WithsOne Voice have developed a resource on how to set up a mobile library service for homeless people, inspired by the work of Cardboard Citizens and others. Through Zoom, they are helping to connect people doing the same work, and mapping all the initiatives supporting homeless people through cultural activity during the pandemic. If you know of something, do get in touch with them.

It’s not only specialist arts organisations who are reaching out to to people experiencing homelessness: National Theatre Wales is working with the homeless community in Wrexham. TEAM, the company’s distinctive approach to engagement, is in the third year of a four year co-creation programme with the people of Wrexham – a process where the people decided that the finale, an NTW show in 2021, would focus on homelessness. Like the other organisations, TEAM have had to suspend all planned workshops, training and social events. Instead they have focussed on being part of and supporting other community initiatives across Wrexham, sharing information about their work so that people can help. They’ve also established a partnership with a social enterprise, through which people in the TEAM network have been asked to donate care packages or write letters to people who are isolated, vulnerable and/or experiencing homelessness.

These organisations – and many others like them – are doing everything they can to support some of the most vulnerable people in our society during this crisis. And they are doing it while simultaneously struggling to keep their own fragile organisations afloat, with furloughed staff and highly uncertain futures. What they do is impressive in the good times. Right now, it’s just extraordinary and they deserve every bit of support we can give them.