A project initiated by

Streetwise Opera/With One Voice

"We work in enabling homeless people to go into arts venues, to perform, to take part in workshops, to go on theatre trips – and that is often enabling them to say to themselves: if I can achieve this, what else is possible?”

Streetwise Opera/With One Voice

Based in London but working with people who have experienced and/or are at risk of homelessness across England, Streetwise Opera was founded in 2002 by Matt Peacock, who is still its artistic director. It has a core team of seven full-time and eleven part-time staff, supplemented by 20-30 freelance support workers and workshop leaders. Turnover is roughly £900,000, for both Streetwise and With One Voice, a global network incubated within Streetwise connecting cross-disciplinary arts organisations that work with homeless people. It receives just over 40% of its income through public funding (it is an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation), just under 40% via trusts and foundations, and roughly 10% through corporate sponsors.

Mission: using music to make positive change in the lives of homeless people

Matt Peacock was working for an opera magazine by day and as a support worker in a night centre when he first staged an opera with homeless people. Streetwise Opera emerged in 2002 from that performance. The charity runs weekly programmes in five urban areas in England, in Newcastle/Gateshead, Middlesbrough, Manchester, Nottingham and London, across which it works with approximately 700 people each year.

Peacock describes the charity’s focus as two-fold: “increased well-being, and increased social inclusion. Homelessness is not just about housing: if you’ve experienced homelessness, you’ve also often experienced a huge amount of trauma, and barriers that stop you moving forward. Homeless people, when measured on the national scale of mental health, are three times lower than the national average and seven times more likely to kill themselves. There’s also chronic isolation, not only when people are experiencing homelessness, but when they’ve been rehoused. We work in enabling homeless people to go into arts venues, to perform, to take part in workshops, to go on theatre trips – and that is often enabling them to say to themselves: if I can achieve this, what else is possible?”

The programme

In each urban area, the Streetwise Opera workshop is sited in two venues:

A front-line homeless centre. The partnership here might be between Streetwise and several other organisations: in Middlesbrough the centre is also used by the Middlesbrough Asylum Project and sessions are run in collaboration with Depaul UK; in Manchester, the collaboration is with the Booth Centre and Opera North. These open-access workshops take place at regular times on set days, for 48 weeks in the year, to offer homeless people a rare consistency: “They’re little islands of tranquillity, sometimes in a sea of chaos. We want them to be dependable, because everything can be changing quite a lot for the people we work with.”

An arts venue, including Sage Gateshead and MIMA. This provides a progression route for participants, retains the engagement of people who have been rehoused, and has a further benefit: “The arts venue is a portal to society. There’s a physical and philosophical welcome for people going into one of these main institutions, and these organisations usually have a lot of other things going on as well, so we can introduce people to other groups happening there.”

As part of both programmes, participants are taken to performances at opera houses across the country. Attendance always follows a period of studying the opera, and performing it themselves, so no one feels outside the experience.

There are also performances from the participants, on invitation (conferences, charity galas, etc), and in showings staged by Streetwise, which culminate every two years in a major opera in one of the five key areas. Although these are made in collaboration with professional teams, primarily the performers are non-professionals who have experienced homelessness: “That’s about showing our performers – and the public – that they can achieve great things. Streetwise aims for equal social and artistic quality in these productions and all have received four- and five-star reviews in the national press.”

Although the aims of the charity are well-being and social inclusion rather than readiness for work, skills and employment opportunities do emerge through the programme, with participants accessing work placements in arts organisations across England.

With One Voice international movement

In 2012, Streetwise took part in the Cultural Olympiad, working with international organisations similarly dedicated to arts provision for homeless people. This led to With One Voice, a movement building on those initial connections. “We’ve found at least 200 organisations like Streetwise around the world, all totally fragmented. With One Voice is about us sharing: sharing best practice, sharing encouragement, talking about the issues we face.”

Crucially, these things aren’t shared only within the organisations: through With One Voice, Peacock organised a visit for a key councillor and policy-makers from Manchester to Brazil, where With One Voice set up six choirs as part of the Rio 2016 Cultural Olympiad. He has also found ways to “get people from different sectors talking around a table. When we’ve had people experiencing homelessness sitting with local government, politicians, arts practitioners, arts organisations, people from society, putting voices of people who have experienced the issue being dealt with at the centre of the conversation, there’s an opportunity to change attitudes and more.” Already this action has resulted in a shift in policy in Manchester in relation to homeless people and the arts.

This international perspective has changed Peacock’s outlook, too:

“Art is embraced in some countries in a way that it’s not embraced in the UK. In Brazil, politicians in social development talk about the arts being a human right, and being in the UN Charter of Human Rights. If art were regarded here as valuable and a human right, you’d start having conversations about how art can be good for society in general, and can contribute.” 

What next?

Peacock now has three key ambitions for Streetwise and particularly With One Voice:

1: Every homeless centre in the world has an arts programme

“It would solve a huge amount of issues, and benefit so many people. With One Voice’s vision is a world where the arts are used to support and give a voice to homeless people everywhere.”

2: Cultural spaces around the world have a better strategy for homelessness

With One Voice has commissioned two studies, around arts and homelessness globally, and around cultural spaces working with homeless people, to be launched in 2018. “These cultural spaces are often in metropolitan areas, homeless people come in to use the toilets and the Wi-Fi, and there’s absolutely no shared practice around this. That piece of work may result in some really useful guidelines for libraries, museums, galleries, concert halls, who are not homelessness experts but want to open their doors to be day centres almost.”

3: Increasing the day-to-day value of the arts

In times of economic hardship, Peacock argues, it’s even more important to see art as more than “a diversion or entertainment. My dream for society is for the arts to be used more as a small but important part of the jigsaw of social welfare in general. It is part of everyday life, and if we begin to look at the whole of society with the arts as part of that, then very interesting things can happen.”

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