A 40+ strong choir (the So Voz choir) perform on the steps of the municipal theatre.
With One Voice, So Voz choir performance. ©

Lorena Mossa

Matt Peacock, Director of the international homelessness movement With One Voice, talks about the work of Streetwise Opera, arts and homelessness, and learning from international collaboration

Across the globe creative practitioners are working with communities to co-create and co-produce. This work cuts across genres and challenges our understanding of the role of arts and culture in society. This blog is part of a series exploring socially engaged practice in the UK and internationally. With writings and provocations from Matt Peacock (With One Voice, Streetwise Opera), Chrissie Tiller (writer, teacher, thinker), Ruth Gould, Shelagh Wright and Peter Jenkinson (Culture and Conflict), this blog offers examples and experiences of socially engaged practice, shares ideas, and investigates what it means to create socially engaged art today.

Arts and Homelessness - Learning from International Collaboration

Streetwise Opera has developed from a small arts project in a London night shelter to a movement helping projects around the world connect and exchange ideas. One cold night in early 2000 when I was working part-time as a support worker in the night shelter, one of the guys staying there read out a quote in a newspaper after dinner – a politician had said that the homeless are, ‘The people you step over coming out of the opera house’. Cue understandable derision: ‘why do people always look down on us?’ ‘we are more than people think we are’ ‘if we were in an opera, it would change people’s minds about homeless people’. Everyone looked at me. You see, I was also a full-time Assistant Editor of Opera Now magazine. Their eyes seemed to be saying ‘make it happen’. So, we did.

This was the beginning of Streetwise Opera. I managed to put together the essentials: a host theatre, a band, a designer, a choreographer and an opera. The guys from the night shelter wanted to help make props and costumes – definitely not to sing or act (at that stage) so we spent ten weeks running design workshops. The Passage Nightshelter had always been a friendly place – but as in many centres at the time, there was a clear separation between the charity ‘givers’ and ‘receivers’. Staging an opera created a different power balance, where we were all in the same boat, where people were being asked their opinions and ideas rather than what needs and issues they required fixing. The men involved grew in confidence and pride.

‘I realised that the power of the arts can enable people to scale to the top of human achievement but, if it’s taken away too abruptly, people can crash down the other side.’

On opening night, when the curtain fell, the back-stage crew from the Nightshelter took their bow to a standing ovation. Some of them said it was the first time anyone had congratulated them for anything in their lives. Together back-stage, one of the guys bounded up, shouting, ‘Man, that was awesome, what’s next?’ The question was like a thunderbolt – there was nothing next and, in that moment, I realised that the power of the arts can enable people to scale to the top of human achievement but, if it’s taken away too abruptly, people can crash down the other side. What had I been thinking? How could I have been so stupid – a professional support worker? I had been blinded by the destination rather than the journey.

I felt I had let everyone down and although I saw everyone afterwards back in the Nightshelter, they missed the community and the feeling of achievement we had created with the show. I vowed that I would start a charity built on the idea of staging operas with this community but this time it would have ‘what next?’ at its heart.

The company we developed had three pillars – regularity, ambition and respect. The day after the show would be the most important day – the process and the legacy just as important as the production with a regular programme of music workshops in homeless centres every week of the year.

At the same time, I also knew that collectively it wasn’t enough for our participants to perform and get a pat on the back – just as the first company had wanted to challenge the public about their conceptions of homeless people, we knew that if we were to stage operas, they would be artistically as well as socially ambitious.

Finally, respect for us was not just about listening and empathy but about true collaboration – co-creating every workshop and every show. I think people outside Streetwise assume we impose opera on our performers – not that the idea came from our performers themselves.

‘When dealing with multiple issues, multiple solutions are required.

Now 16 years on and in 2018, homelessness in the UK is worse than it has been for a generation with government street-count figures reporting an increase of 170 per cent in rough sleeping since 2010. With so many pressing issues, how can the arts and creativity be justified as important? To answer this question, it is important to look more closely at homelessness itself. For many people, homelessness is the result of multiple factors – poverty, relationship breakdown, mental health issues, sometimes substance misuse. This combination of issues can result in people losing their tenancies, but they can also suffer from social isolation, especially once they have been re-housed – of tenancy failures, 25 per cent are the result of loneliness (Crisis). Health issues are also significant with the well-being levels of homeless people for mental and physical health are three times lower than the national average. Homeless people are also seven times more likely to kill themselves (Crisis).

When dealing with multiple issues, multiple solutions are required. It is not enough to provide people with a flat or a house without other support structures in place and ways to re-connect back into community life and improve their mental and physical health. Rather like a jigsaw puzzle, pieces need to fit together to create a whole picture – a piece for housing alongside one for health, one for recovery, and arts and creativity. Streetwise Opera’s Evaluation Tree shows how 95 per cent of performers’ mental health improved and 80 per cent went on to engage more in other community activities. 

We developed this theory of multiple solutions into the Jigsaw of Homelessness Support model. This is a model of needs – an alternative to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In the Jigsaw, the person is in the centre surrounded by a jigsaw of interventions, each addressing a need: food, shelter, housing, benefits, community and relationships, mental and physical health, recovery, arts and sports. We didn’t come up with this idea alone but with a much wider, global community of arts and homelessness – which introduces the second part of this story.

'With One Voice is built on the idea of people coming together from different countries to make change together – improving practice, the profile of the arts and homelessness sector and influencing policy.'

Over the last few years, Streetwise Opera has developed a new international arts and homelessness movement called With One Voice. This movement emerged through events we organised with arts and homelessness projects from around the world at successive Cultural Olympiad projects in London 2012 and Rio 2016. The homeless people involved intended these events to act as a creative platform, to give them a louder voice and challenge public opinion. But quickly we all realised that the real power lay in the exchanging of ideas, practice and inspiration. With One Voice is built on the idea of people coming together from different countries to make change together – improving practice, the profile of the arts and homelessness sector and influencing policy.

Since the launch in Rio in 2016, we have found approximately 300 projects around the world and set about connecting them on-line and, in many cases, in person through exchanges. This year we organised the first International Arts and Homelessness Summit and Festival in Manchester in November where we brought together some of the most interesting projects globally.

Examples include Osaka’s University of the Arts Kamagasaki and Tokyo’s Sokerissa dance programme, which are changing complex public attitudes towards homeless people in Japan; the Paris Mayor’s social inclusion programme, Pacte Parisien, which partners cultural organisations and homeless centres in every arrondissement; cultural spaces such as Rio’s Museum of Tomorrow and Dallas’ Public Library which are integrating homeless people into programming; and Theatre of the Oppressed NYC’s policy of ensuring homeless people, whether staff members or participants are paid and have the same opportunities as everyone involved. In my view this is the logical next step for participation which is on a trajectory from access and cultural entitlement to greater participation, and now to integrate through decision-making and co-creation, and equality of opportunities and pay.

With exchange comes replication and some of these projects are beginning to stick: here in the UK, both the Jigsaw of Homelessness Support and Paris’ cultural partnership programme will be part of the new ten-year homelessness strategy for Greater Manchester in time for the Summit. It is possibly the first ever civic homeless policy to include the arts.

This is a testament to the power in numbers, a wider evidence base and diversity of thought. Sharing ideas and bringing together groups with common aims gives individual organisations greater influence over policy and thus an opportunity to create change beyond their usual sphere. And to continue searching for a better ‘what next?’ In an increasingly polarised world, what is clear to me now, more than ever, is that we need to come together to exchange on a local, national and international level. 


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