With One Voice - Members a Rio Homeless Choir sing at the Municipal Theater, Rio. Photo: Lorena Mossa
by Matt Peacock, Artistic Director, Streetwise Opera and Director, With One Voice
20 years ago I was a music journalist working for an opera magazine. The job involved a lot of travel and I’d be overseas every couple of weeks. Over time, I was struck by how many homeless people were sleeping on the streets of every major city I visited. I had questions about why people were there and who was helping them – I used to chat to my flat-mates about this until one of them pointed out that I talked a lot but I actually did nothing.
The next day I volunteered for a night shelter in London, The Passage – two years later I was a part time Key Worker and set up Streetwise Opera which has been going now for 16 years. Streetwise came into being following a conversation round the dinner table one night in the shelter. A resident read out a newspaper quote where an MP said the homeless were, ‘The people you step over coming out of the Opera House’. Some thought this was an insult, others an opportunity – if they were in the opera house performing and not outside, surely this would change people’s opinion of them.
The fact is, homelessness is not just about housing – people who have experienced homelessness often experience multiple needs such as mental and physical health problems, poverty and substance issues. In order to address multiple needs, you need multiple solutions. The shelter residents that night needed more than food and shelter. They wanted to use opera to change attitudes and turn stigma into celebration.
The Royal Opera House opened their doors to us, no doubt with a little trepidation and we staged a short opera with the residents. The process transformed the night shelter into a place of ideas and laughter, of people finding and expressing their creative voice. When the curtain came down, it was clear that we needed to continue.
Streetwise Opera now works with 600 people per year who have experienced or are at risk of homelessness. We run regular music workshops with groups in London, Nottingham, Manchester, Newcastle/Gateshead and Teeside, half of which take place in front-line centres and half in arts organisations (Southbank Centre, Theatre Royal Nottingham, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Arts and Sage Gateshead).
These venues provide an elevating place for our performers and often run other creative programmes our performers can join, further enabling social mobility. They also partner on two of our projects: theWork Placement Scheme which builds skills, confidence and valuable experience for CVs; and the Theatre Trip Scheme which enables our performers to see opera, theatre and concerts around the country. We often build theatre trips around a period of studying the repertoire so that when our performers come to see the show, they frequently know more about it than the majority of the audience! This can be a powerful tool - building self-esteem, demystifying cultural spaces and making people feel welcome.
The role of cultural spaces is increasingly important in a divided society, giving the most marginalized a physical and metaphorical welcome into community life.
We are exploring this further through With One Voice, a newly launched, international movement seeking to connect and strengthen the arts and homelessness sector internationally. Since cultural spaces (theatres, venues, museums, libraries) are predominantly in metropolitan areas, they are inevitably close to where homeless people congregate. It is surprising that there is no shared practice about how to work with homeless people given that many venues want to be as open as possible to their homeless neighbours. Some venues, such as the Diorama Arts Centre actively encourage homeless people in and provide free tea and coffee; others, like the Dallas City Library and Southbank Centre train Front of House staff on how to work with homeless people.
With One Voice is bringing these practices together into a Review of Cultural Spaces’ Responses to Homelessness. This will be launched at our first International Arts and Homelessness Summit/Festival in Manchester in November 2018. A shareable toolkit will follow in the spring of 2019 and a training package where homeless people will deliver training to cultural spaces.
The arts have a profound and well documented role in supporting homeless people and we want to enable more organisations to join us.
We’d love to hear from UK Theatre members who are interested in finding out about our Work Placement or Theatre Trip Schemes and the Review of Cultural Spaces. Email us at email@example.com.
Streetwise Opera - Middlesbrough Opera Hour 2017. Photo: Kev Howard