Getting creative with support during lockdown
When the pandemic hit in March, the homelessness sector rolled up its sleeves and began finding innovative ways to house and support people in crisis. Quickly, it became clear that people staying in hotels and temporary accommodation were facing other challenges such as chronic isolation and poor mental health.
Arts and creativity have long been used in the sector to build well-being and resilience and to connect people – but what happens when you’re not allowed to meet up or when you are digitally excluded and facing even greater isolation?
Commissioners and services were also getting in touch looking for ideas to help people overcome boredom. The irony was that, at a time when creativity was valued highly in the homelessness sector, setting up projects was at its most challenging due to the pandemic.
(A mural created by residents of emergency accommodation in Haringey (July 2020) in partnership with Accumulate, London Borough of Haringey and Arts and Homelessness International)
The arts and homelessness community responded by finding ways to adapt. Some ran workshops online (see this weekly C-19 timetable and this online opera created by Streetwise Opera); others posted projects (from Arthur and Martha’s embroidery project, Here Comes the Sun involving Manchester’s Booth Centre, to the 3,500 art packs sent out by Accumulate); others used phones in hotel rooms (The Reader’s one-to-one assisted reading sessions). Many worked safely face-to-face – Geetha Rabindrakumar of Cardboard Citizens developed a Mobile Library project in a hotel and Choir with No Name and others began rehearsing in parks.
A lot of the success of these projects was the result of strong partnerships - the homelessness services seeing the need for positive interventions and seeking out partners in the arts/homelessness field to deliver them.
Sophie Hall, Housing and Homelessness Commissioning Manager at Coventry City Council runs the service at the Days Hotel. Working with Crisis, Coventry Comfort Carers and City of Culture, the hotel now boasts a weekly programme of guitar classes, arts workshops and a photography project. “We had a film night recently and 15 people came which is great... It’s a step towards the normal stuff, not just physically but emotionally. Creativity can give people a reason to connect with others… 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.”
What is interesting is that the adaptations the arts sector has made have resulted in more people in housing need accessing creative projects, particularly those who were sleeping rough and now in hotels. It became obvious that we needed to capture some of this learning to help projects in future lockdowns and help maintain this increased reach.
We therefore designed a research project to investigate two creative programmes happening in London hotels in Wandsworth and Haringey. In the St Mungo’s hotel in Wandsworth, Geetha developed the mobile library into a programme of weekly creative challenges with Accumulate, The Reader and colleagues from Cardboard Citizens. Inspired by this project, we at AHI set up a face-to-face programme of creative workshops including an outdoor mural at an emergency accommodation service in Haringey with Accumulate and the Borough Council.
(A picture created by Mehdi Panahi, resident in a London hotel run by St Mungos as part of a project created by Cardboard Citizens, The Reader and Accumulate)
We then assembled a group of academics, hotel residents, arts practitioners and service staff to co-create the research, meeting online weekly. What we found was a combination of familiar core principles of arts participation (the importance of building trust and ending projects well) and entirely new findings (that for some people, Zoom is a safer space than face-to-face). Together we produced this film, report and on-line learning resource under the banner of our new ART Lab Enquiry research programme.
Even after a few short weeks, these projects had positive impacts on residents and services. Gill Taylor, Strategic Lead, Single Homelessness and Vulnerable Adults said: “The pandemic has strengthened our understanding of the benefits of creativity not only for residents of our service but also for staff morale and the creation of psychologically-informed environments within our services and teams.”
(Creative Packs sent around Coventry during lockdown organised by Underground Lights, Grapevine, Crisis, Arty Folks, Belgrade Theatre and Coventry City of Culture 2021)
Next year, we will help Haringey embed arts provision into its rough sleeping strategy through the Jigsaw of Homeless Support, which is being used in Manchester and Coventry.
COVID-19 has been devastating for so many people and with a second lockdown underway, things are not going to improve quickly. It seems vital to find ways to help people thrive, not just survive. As Mehdi Panani, a hotel resident said: “Creativity is like medicine – it heals. If you take it away, we go back to square one.” The arts and homelessness sector is more equipped than ever to take up the challenge.
Our #EveryoneInForGood Member Blog Series highlights the positive innovation and practice of frontline homelessness services during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting successful outcomes for the people they support. It advocates for the important role of Homeless Link’s members in the next phase of the response, while inspiring and motivating others.