On World Homeless Day, Arts & Homelessness International has brought together people from the homelessness sector in Coventry to talk about the value of creativity and what City of Culture might bring to the lives of people affected by homelessness in Coventry.
This World Homeless Day is like none other – the country is gripped by what looks to be a second wave of C-19 and although many homeless people are shielding in hotel accommodation, thousands more people are facing joblessness and housing instability. With this backdrop, it would be easy to dismiss creativity and arts as peripheral. And yet, it is often in our darkest hours that creativity is more important than ever. Unexpectedly deep within the ashes of the crisis, there are bright sparks of creativity happening around the city in emergency accommodation, in parks and on kitchen tables. This is a story of resilience and activism and it appears that both are very much alive and kicking in Coventry.
It has long been accepted that homelessness is not just about housing and with the trauma of having no home come inevitable consequences of poor physical and mental health and isolation. Coventry boasts a group of around half a dozen charities which work in the area of arts and homelessness, focusing on everything from music to theatre backing up research that creativity can contribute to well-being, agency, skills and resilience. Almost immediately when C-19 hit, projects started moving their work on-line and also began devising new postal projects to reach people in isolation who didn’t have internet access. This has grown to include residents in hotels, Housing First and temporary accommodation who weren’t previously accessing creativity.
Hayley Harman, a volunteer and member at Underground Lights (a Springboard company of Belgrade Theatre) takes up the story: ‘As a response to lockdown, I came up with the idea of creative packs. We were able to deliver 400, containing art materials and activities, to vulnerable members of our communities. The packs helped to keep isolated people feeling connected during lockdown. A second phase of the packs, focusing more on a theatrical aspect, contained materials and instructions to make a smile mask and recipients were invited to join my ‘Smile Tribe’.’ Next Hayley hopes to develop the project using Commedia dell’arte, Italian masked theatre and maybe, one day, Coventry will have its very own masked theatre company. ‘Having a space to share ideas and meet like-minded people has improved my confidence no end’.
Like Hayley, Emma Omerod, Artistic Director/CEO of UL has experienced first-hand how powerful arts can be. ‘In a recent blog I wrote about my experience of being involved in theatre as a way of connecting with others and finding some respite from past traumas. Although I know what a powerful and life changing effect the arts can have, I am still overwhelmed when some of our members tell me that being a member of Underground Lights has not just enriched their life, it has saved it.’ 10th October is both World Homeless Day and World Mental Health Day and UL is sharing some short films on social media about what members do in their spare time to help keep them happy, creative and connected.’
Like much of the community arts sector around the world, the pandemic has pushed people and projects together to work more collaboratively. The art packs became a joint project of Underground Lights, Crisis, Arty Folks, City of Culture, Belgrade Theatre and Grapevine. A spin-off ‘Send a Smile’ postcard project followed, devised by UL’s Beth Fiducia-Brookes and has already spread to London and Osaka in Japan.
The sense that creativity is vital during the pandemic is echoed by Ben Davenport, Arts Coordinator at Crisis: ‘As we went into lockdown back in March it became clear that creativity was more important than ever. We were spending a huge amount of time in self isolation and having creative pursuits to express ourselves and connect to others was a hugely important part of maintaining our health and wellbeing.
‘Our usual approach of sitting everyone around a table to paint, sculpt, draw play and have a cup of tea became extremely difficult to do safely, so we’ve found ways to keep everyone creative, secure and supported. As well as the art packs, we have started collaborative poetry and fine art groups that people can contribute to remotely and started guitar classes and even open mic nights over video conferencing software.
‘We’ve also begun a project for people temporarily housed by Coventry City Council [at the Days Hotel]. This has been a really exciting way to co-produce the project with residents and their support staff to make creativity and the arts one of the cornerstones of the community.’
Like much of the council-run emergency accommodation in England during C-19, hotels are being used to house homeless people capitalising on under-occupancy. And in the Days Hotel, the Council has gone one step further and have invited Crisis and Coventry Comfort Carers to run a weekly programme of film nights, guitar and art classes and soon a photography project.
Sophie Hall, Housing and Homelessness Commissioning Manager at the City Council explains: ‘I think creativity is about giving people a positive outlet. ‘We all have things in our lives that make us feel positive and good and it needs to be the same in homelessness. For some people, it’s about replacing negative outlets such as alcohol with something positive to help mental well-being.
‘In the hotel, we’re trying to create a more organic way of engaging – there are no set appointment times, residents can just come and see us which makes it people-led rather than process-led. I see creativity like that – it’s structured but not structured. People we work with are for ever being told what to do – but creativity is more organic and it’s their work and their ideas.
‘We had a film night this week and 15 people came which is great especially since we’ve only just opened. It gave people a sense of normality – sitting in front of a film with a goody bag is so far removed from sleeping under a bridge. It’s a step towards the normal stuff – not just physically but emotionally. Events like this also bring people together and widen people’s circles. If you’re out in town begging, your circle can be quite small – creativity can give people a reason to connect with others and increase people’s circles which can last long into the future. This is particularly important during COVID-19 since a lot of the services that provided meals are gone and so are the interactions people had.’
We talked about Coventry City of Culture and what Sophie would like to see happen. ‘I would love to document the experience in the hotel during COVID. We have all been through this journey together – this would help the public understand homelessness more. It’s about walking a day in my shoes.’
LOOKING FORWARD TO 2021
Bengy Speer has been a member of most of the groups in the city and is now on the City of Culture’s Leadership Programme. Like Sophie, he also talks about City of Culture being an opportunity to change some attitudes around homelessness: ‘I didn’t know if I should apply for the Leadership Programme but I did and City of Culture has given me a spring board to make change. There is a lot of negativity about homelessness and I want to change that. I want people to be more open and communicate more – to bring something and learn something.
‘I want to help the City Council and other organisations become more connected with people who are homeless and listen to them. This could create a lasting legacy not only here but nationally.’
Bengy is creating a fashion show which will take place in Coventry and London and he has already assembled 15 people and both universities together with Underground Lights and Crisis.
‘Creativity is about well-being and camaraderie – feeling connected to people. The creative groups I have been part of are like families. The new Arts and Homelessness Forum is like being in a family and makes me feel calm and the creative packs distributed in lockdown made me feel cared about’.
A NATIONAL MOVEMENT
Bengy’s idea of homeless people being listened to chimes with a national movement for homelessness to be more co-created and to work with people not for them. The City Council is on board with this idea and have just kick started an Experts by Experience group to, as Sophie says, ‘Embed the voice of homeless people through council services.’ AHI will be supporting them and the sector to develop co-creation over the next year and to make creativity part of the Council’s homelessness strategy through the Jigsaw of Homeless Support.
As a recent visitor to this city and having witnessed arts and homelessness projects in many countries, I am left moved and excited about what is happening in Coventry. The dynamism of projects; the shared vision of creativity; the will to amplify the voice of homeless people; the generosity and optimism of individuals in every part of the sector.
And behind all of this sits City of Culture, a catalyst for change and a vehicle for possibility. The sparks that were lit during C-19 are glowing brighter as each day passes towards 2021.
Arts & Homelessness International works to bring positive change to people, projects and policy in homelessness through arts and creativity. Having worked during London 2012 and Rio 2016, AHI is working with Coventry City of Culture to strengthen the arts and homelessness sector and maximise opportunities for projects and people leading up to and beyond 2021.
Thank you to Spirit of 2012 for supporting our Caring City programme at the Coventry City of Culture Trust.