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Highlights from the With One Voice International Arts & Homelessness Summit & Festival

The Summit & Festival aimed to raise awareness of the realities of homelessness and the powerful ways that the arts can transform lives
Posted by Sian Williams

I was lucky enough to join 250 delegates from 15 countries for the world’s first International Arts and Homelessness Summit & Festival. The Summit programme ranged from panel debates to more informal chances to engage with the arts – from singing exercises to becoming ‘living statues’ – which provided a unique energy to proceedings. Half of the delegate places were given free to people who are or have been homeless, ensuring that people with lived experience were at the heart of the Summit.

The event was hosted by With One Voice (WOV), a new international movement that aims to strengthen the arts and homelessness sector through exchanges in practice and policy. The Festival consisted of a week-long programme of free events and exhibitions across Manchester. The Summit was a conference at the Whitworth Art Gallery, which brought together practitioners, artists, activists, academics and policy makers from across the world.

Day one: Practice Exchange                 

Matt Peacock, Director of WOV, welcomed delegates to day one of the Summit, the practice exchange. Matt explained that while the arts won’t solve homelessness, it will help to build wellbeing, resilience and pride. He praised the Summit & Festival as a unique opportunity to celebrate the creativity and self-worth of people who have been homeless, and for those in the arts and homelessness sector to learn from each other.

The day kicked off with quick-fire presentations. They provided a fascinating snapshot into the work of arts and homelessness organisations from around the world. It was moving to hear about the practical difference that art can make to people’s lives. We were treated to more of these bite-size presentations throughout the Summit.

 “The arts won’t solve homelessness, but it will help to build wellbeing, resilience and pride.”

Cultural Spaces and Homelessness

A panel discussion explored the ways that cultural spaces are welcoming people who are, or have been, homeless to take part fully in their programmes and/or services.

Director of Dallas Public Library, Jo Giudice, explained how kindness is central to the Library’s approach. She revealed how the little things can have the biggest impact, “We welcome homeless people at the ‘front porch’, learn their name and give eye contact”. After taking down the restrictive ‘codes of conduct’, the Library simply asked for kindness and respect from its users.

The panel discussed the importance of handing over power and giving people the opportunity to shape, and contribute to, an institution’s programme. Jo explained how it was essential for Dallas Public Library to consult homeless people about the changes needed at the Library. New services such as free music lessons have reinvented the Library’s offering and its relationships with its users.

Governance was another topic covered, with agreement that there must be buy-in from ‘the top’, both from senior management and boards. However, it was acknowledged that institutional change takes time. At Dallas Public Library it involved gradually convincing employees of the vision and investing in staff training.

Many institutions are only in the early stages of creating more inclusive spaces. WOV is conducting an International Review of Cultural Spaces’ Responses to Homelessness. A ‘toolkit’ and training package for institutions which want to broaden access and opportunities for homeless people will be launched in 2019.

Practice Exchange Workshops                                          

The panel discussion was followed by a choice of practice exchange workshops, which included poetry, theatre and film-making. I attended the singing session, where Streetwise Opera’s Mark Oldfield was on hand as facilitator and choirmaster. After introducing ourselves (through song, of course), we heard from delegates about their experiences of participating in, or running, choirs. One delegate spoke of the importance of his choir, explaining “We sing because we need to be heard”.

Credit: Rey Trombetta

Next, Marina dela Maza Escobedo introduced us to the work of Barcelona-based Basket Beat. The project works with vulnerable and underserved communities to help with their personal growth, through creating and learning music in groups and with basketballs. A group of volunteers joined in the interactive session, which involved using basketballs to keep a rhythm. It was a fun and easy alternative to conventional musical groups.

Following this, we discussed topics such as collaborative leadership, and how to make group activities inclusive for all participants. There was also the chance for workshop attendees to step into the role of facilitator and share singing exercises with the group. We concluded the session by singing ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story, filling the room with the lyrics “There’s a place for us”. Mark explained that the song was something of an anthem for Streetwise Opera.

An afternoon of world café conversations left me with plenty of food for thought and excitement for day two.

Day Two: Policy

Manchester City Council’s Homelessness Strategy

On the second day of the summit we shifted our attention to policy. Matt Peacock, Director of WOV, explained why Manchester was chosen to host the Summit and Festival. It was inspiring to hear how a commitment to increasing access to arts has been included in Manchester city council’s current five-year homelessness strategy. Equally impressive was the important role of the city’s cultural sector in supporting the strategy.

Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham discussed the city’s ‘A bed every night’ initiative but admitted that shelter is only the first step to providing stability. He spoke of the importance of the arts for self-expression, growing confidence and enabling people to share their story.

A panel discussion reflected on how Manchester has integrated people with lived experience into its homelessness strategy. The Booth Centre’s Amanda Croome explained how civil society had stepped in to work with local government after the city council admitted they couldn’t solve homelessness on their own. Co-production with individuals with lived experience of homelessness was recognised as crucial to the development of the Manchester Homelessness Charter. However, John Organ from Inspiring Change Manchester warned that co-production can only be effective when power is redistributed.

Amanda noted the importance of providing holistic support when tackling homelessness. She explained how Manchester City Council’s Homelessness Strategy is the first civic homelessness strategy to include the arts and culture. Leonie Bell from Paisley Partnership stressed the need to integrate culture into other policy areas, to release its ‘transformative power’.

The panel praised WOV’s model for ‘The Jigsaw of Homeless Support’, which has been included in the council’s strategy. The model rejects hierarchical and linear approaches to support and advocates for a more diverse ‘interlocking jigsaw’ of support. It recognises that people with multiple needs require multiple solutions from the offset.

Credit: Rey Trombetta

Legislative Theatre

Next, we were invited to become ‘Spect-Actors’ in a legislative theatre workshop led by Katy Rubin and Letitia Bouie from the Theatre of the Oppressed NYC. The Theatre partners with communities facing discrimination to inspire transformative action through theatre. Katy explained the role that legislative theatre can play in educating the public, empowering individuals and challenging the status quo.

Legislative Theatre involves watching original plays based on the actors’ lived experiences. The audience is encouraged to brainstorm alternatives to the problems presented on stage. Then, Spect-Actors take to the stage to rehearse new ideas. Everyone is invited to suggest policy proposals that get processed by a ‘Policy Advisory Team.’ The policy-makers present the best proposals, which are debated and voted on by the crowd. If most people accept the idea, the government representatives make a promise to act on those ideas.

Our theatre scenario focused on the exploitation of an artist who was homeless. A top-down community organisation was profiting from sales of the artist’s work yet refused to pay them for their art. The organisation’s CEO was only happy to pay what he perceived as ‘real artists’.

Spect-Actors acted out alternative scenes to this infuriating scenario. Ideas included taking the artist’s story of discrimination to the press and cutting ties with the community organisation. The audience then discussed the viability of these scenarios. Next, it was time for the policy proposals, which included having 25% of boards made up of individuals with lived experience. There was unanimous approval for the audience’s proposals and agreement from the government representatives that they would discuss these with their colleagues.

I was left impressed with this powerful approach to storytelling, which puts individual experiences of discrimination centre stage and seeks alternative solutions to social justice issues.

Final reflections

After a delicious lunch, provided by social enterprise Back on Track, there was time to explore the Whitworth’s Poet Street exhibition, curated by ‘Urban Poet’ Jed Austin. The exhibition features poems and artwork by rough sleepers in Manchester, providing moving accounts of life on the streets. The money raised from sales of the artwork will be used to buy winter provisions for people who are sleeping rough. It was just one of the many artistic events taking place across Manchester, which included a photography exhibition at Piccadilly station of portraits of people who attend the Booth Centre.

Following a round of world café conversations, day two closed with pledges from delegates on how to take this work forward. It was also a moment to celebrate the creativity and voices of people who have been homeless; the new connections, perspectives and ideas had emerged from the Summit; and the passion and vision behind this work.

Photo credits: Rey Trombetta, Streetwise Opera.

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch) is a founder funder of With One Voice. 

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