Homelessness is a complex social issue with proposed solutions that are as varied and nebulous as its causes. As Seattle’s housing crisis surges, city leaders and service providers have begun to look outside of the city to find innovative solutions. What they’ve found is an unlikely approach that has forged pathways to housing from Brazil to the U.K.—addressing homelessness through the arts.
Beth Knowles, the current Mayoral Lead for Homelessness and Rough Sleeping at Greater Manchester Mayor’s Office, is helping North West England address its homelessness crisis by merging the arts community with both public and private sectors. In her prior role as a Manchester City Councillor, Knowles noticed that “rough sleeping was increasing dramatically in my ward, and no one was concentrating on it. As far as I was concerned, they were as much my residents as anyone who was housed.”
So she began searching for tools to help her residents get back into housing. She joined With One Voice—an international movement that seeks to address homelessness through policies and practices focused on the arts—where she participated in an exchange program that took her to Brazil in 2015. The trip helped Knowles connect the dots between access to housing and the arts. In Brazil, she saw creative programs help homeless people transform their personal narratives. Art equipped people with a new identity that could help lead them out of homelessness.
Her quest then lead her to the U.S. and Canada to research the art and homelessness sector. In a report on her observations, she identified Seattle non-profit Path with Art as an organization that provides a path to stability.
Last week, Knowles returned to Seattle as a special guest at Path With Art’s 10th Anniversary Luncheon, where she discussed the various factors that lead to homelessness, and how communities can come together to solve it. She emphasized the need for a support system to break people out of the isolation that they often feel while they’re unhoused.
In between her meetings with service providers and city officials, Knowles sat down with Seattle Weekly to discuss her approach, and how various sectors in Seattle can work together to tackle the city’s most pressing issues.
Where did the idea that art could help tackle homelessness originate?
It’s a good question. It originated from people’s ingenuity, which is why it’s a byproduct of the arts and homelessness sector–artists think creatively, think differently about solutions, which is really what the arts and homelessness [sector] is about. It’s about different solutions, it’s about seeing a gap and working with the person to fill it.
Augosto Boal and Latin American theories, and practices is where it came from. The arts are seen as a human right and your access to it in Latin America. And Streetwise Opera … really started this sector in the U.K. They brought people who were sleeping on the streets or in supported housing into the opera to perform, and multiple organizations were inspired by that.
It’s artists seeing people in a state of trauma and responding to it in the way that they know best, because they’re socially connected. It’s happened very organically, and that’s part of the reason that we exist, because [homeless people] are very isolated, so knitting together their best practices hasn’t really been done before.
How did you come across art as a new way to try to address the issue?
I’ve always been interested in art and design as factors of social change. I was invited as a politician who was working in homelessness to an exchange to Brazil, because I was talking about working with people who are homeless in designing services and co-designing city services. And they said, “This has already been done in Brazil. Don’t know if you know about it.” And I was like, “Uh, nope.” It had already been done for a decade.
So I went out and saw the National Movement of Street People, and saw how art was wielded as a tool through that: in Cracolândia—where most people who are chaotically homeless live—they display news and public service announcements through the murals; in a day center where they work with people on the street art; or [at] an art class and being used as a therapeutic method. And so I saw a multitude of different uses for it. And when we came back, we set up the Manchester Homelessness Partnership, which has ten action groups underneath it, which [target] all the root causes and roots out of homelessness: so it was mental health, employment, emergency accommodation, and the arts and heritage.
Time and time and time and time again, people are going, “The arts saved my life.” “This class meant I got out of bed in the morning.” It’s a replacement of self-medication. I’ve watched people become photographers rather than self-medicate. Art is a leveler.
In Manchester, we have a day center called the Booth Centre which is renowned as the best integrated homeless and arts center in the country, and I thought that was normal. I thought it was normal to have outside activities and day centers until I went to see others. So we worked really closely with [the Booth Centre], and almost every homeless center in the city now utilizes the arts.
What do your duties as the Mayoral Lead for Homelessness and Rough Sleeping at Greater Manchester Mayor’s Office entail?
I’m responsible for convening the homelessness action network across greater Manchester, which is a collective of organizations and individuals who are interested or invested in tackling homelessness. So it’s the whole society response that the mayor has called for. Homelessness isn’t one problem, so it’s not one sector’s responsibility to solve it. It’s my job to develop that whole society response—develop the business network and [making requests] from the community sector, going to either the business network, or the faith network, or the business forum, and [getting] them all to speak to each other, which they didn’t before. And involving people with lived experience every step of the way—not tokenistically.
A year in, the programs that were put into place have just kicked off. It’s really kicked in in the past two to three months, and we’ve seen homelessness go down for the first time in three years. But it’s only for one month, so I’m not too keen to attribute that directly to anything just yet. Once it’s gone down for three months in a row, then we know that things are working.
What are some of the programs that you’re overseeing?
The business network has convened and evolved their private sector organizations that want to help to solve homelessness, so they are led by a property developer in the city. He works with leaders from all of the different sectors in the city to develop responses with the homelessness sector. The sector has said, “the number one thing that we need is jobs–we need access to employment.” Once somebody’s been homeless, they’ve got a mark on their record and their identity, and they’ve slipped through a net that they can’t get back through. So the call-out then is to employers to make an effort to employ people who are homeless.
Where does art come into the programs that you mentioned?
In a couple of different ways. We have the first international arts and homelessness festival in Greater Manchester in November. We’ll be showcasing projects that have taken place in the city. All of the cultural institutions are involved in that, and are involved in our programs at the moment. They open up their spaces either through free tickets, or through tours around their galleries, curatorial programs, and co-creating exhibitions, making space for exhibitions at the day centers that we put together.
Because arts is part of a strategy, a lot more places are either able to bolster their programs or bring in new ones.
At a time when arts funding throughout the country is dwindling, how do you advise cities to use art to tackle homelessness with the resources that they have?
Use the ones you’ve got, and work together.
It’s working with homelessness organizations in the city as well, and bringing in business. We worked on the Manchester Street Poem, which is a Manchester international festival … that was a storytelling project.
It’s finding the pots of money where they are, and speaking to those people in a way that they understand. Businesses quite understand the arts a little more, which is great. Because they understand supporting the arts and culture, and they understand that homelessness is an issue. Not all of them get it yet, but we’re getting there.
It’s just having everybody seeing homelessness as their responsibility, rather than, “Oh this is what you have to deal with.” And incorporating it into what you already have.