Seattle arts programs expand outreach, take on homelessness together

A look at the impact of experiential arts programs on people living in homelessness
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Last November, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared a State of Emergency for King County’s homelessness crisis. While addressing the concern has proven to be a lofty task for councilmembers and citizens alike, Seattle’s arts programs continue to take initiative on the complicated social issue.  

On June 21, the Seattle Symphony announced “Simple Gifts,” a multi-year, organization-wide commitment to building connections with those experiencing homelessness by extending community service programming. The initiative expanded the Symphony’s engagement with people in homelessness, which has been ongoing since 2013—much of the outreach will be based in pre-existing action and partnerships with shelters, as well as other arts programs. Most importantly, the symphony hopes to increase awareness within the staff and members of the symphony, as well as articulate a promise to work on the issue.  

"We’ve been very clear that we can’t put a roof over people’s heads," says Seattle Symphony president and ceo, Simon Woods. "But what we’ve heard time and time again from our partners is there's one aspect that is caring for physical needs, and one that is caring for psychological and emotional needs. The role that the arts have in providing comfort and raising self-esteem is well-documented, and we have heard it with our own ears."

Executive Director of Seattle shelter Mary's Place, Marty Hartman says she has experienced the transformative nature of these programs through the women, children and families she works with.

Initially, the tendency to feel uninvited in public settings and programming is common, she says. Many people Hartman has encountered at Mary’s Place experience a lack of worth, as well as fear of expressing feelings and vulnerability, which can stunt a connection to such experiences. But when women and families engage with the programs, they have found that the ability to express those fears and griefs and losses through art is especially healing, Hartman adds.

“They begin to realize that their feelings and needs are valued, worthy, and good,” she says. “As they share their art, they realize they are not alone—they start to develop relationships that bring more healing, less hurt and lots of hope.  All of that leads to housing.”

A shelter like Mary’s Place provides a roof, a safe space and resources–but emotional healing, hope and personal value can be derived from participation in community programs, such as the Seattle Symphony's collective plans.

The Seattle Symphony began collaboration with community partners serving people experiencing homelessness about three years ago, with three types of projects: creative projects, innovative partnerships and strategic residencies. With “Simple Gifts,” community service will be added. The musicians, board and staff, and volunteers are currently planning a collective service project surrounding community homelessness.

Among the 60 local nonprofits that the symphony partners with, 15 of the organizations work directly with homeless outreach, three of which specialize in arts engagement.

One Seattle Symphony partner, Path with Art, utilizes arts engagement to benefit underserved audiences through classes, public events and access to a variety of Pacific Northwest arts institutions. The programs focus on transforming the lives of people recovering from homelessness, addiction and other trauma by using creative engagement to break down barriers and build a path to stability.

The relationship between the two organizations began when the symphony donated tickets for Path with Art's "access art" sector, where students attend and tour places like the symphony, the ballet or museums, says its executive director, Holly Jacobson.

"[Access Art] is a means to connect our students to the community and the community to our students," she says. "To feel a part of civic life–I can’t underscore the value of that. When you’re living in poverty or homelessness, you don’t always feel welcome, so we're providing a welcoming way for people to visit these places."


Path With Art students participate in a printmaking class, where they spend eight weeks learning basic techniques of the artform. Photo courtesy of Path With Art.

Seattle Symphony has also collaborated with Path with Art for an upcoming artistic partnership project called We Are All Here. Path with Art Students will take part in a 16-week residency to create an original score that's premiered in partnership with the Seattle Symphony chamber ensemble in March 2017. The project will make use of poetry, music and visual art–music will be inspired by a set of banners created by Path with Art students.

While extensive research has proven the positive outcomes of art on the brain (see examples a, b and c), arts engagement programs specifically built for people living in homelessness are still uncommon. This hasn't stopped students from seeking out the opportunity though–since 2012, Path with Art has increased from serving a population of 174, to 400.

Perhaps the creative thinking and problem solving is not what draws in the crowd. Rather, art can be used as a soothing practice–an activity that allows the brain to bypass the noise many people experiencing homelessness deal with daily

Jacobson relayed a story from one of her students, who explained the impact of the program on his life. The participant listed off his daily routine: pack up belongings and evacuate tent city, bus to the rest stop to shower, check the Millionair Club for work, maybe pick up an odd job here and there, return to tent city. Repeat.

"You do this every day of the week," he told Jacobson. "You're beaten down. But you know that on Friday you get to take an art class, and that's what gets you through. Knowing that I have an art class coming keeps me from giving up."

In these situations, art acts as an equalizer, because it's a difficult, creative and stress-relieving practice for anyone. The results, however, can be much more dramatic for people living in homelessness, or who have experienced trauma, due to circumstance.

"These people arguably have the most to gain and the least access," Jacobson says.

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