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How museums are helping homeless people

Museums are helping homeless people in a variety of ways.

Homelessness is an important issue in the United States. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development releases an ‘Annual Homeless Assessment Report’ every year. The latest figures reveal that in 2017 there were around 554,000 homeless people in the US on an average night. This is 0.17% of the population.    

Many of these people are ‘invisible homeless’. This means they have no permanent address. Often, they are moving between shelters, hostels and friend’s floors or sofas. Museums have a responsibility to engage with everyone in society. There are many institutions which are helping homeless people, with a range of projects and outreach programmes.

Homeless People and Museums

It is clear that the situation for many people is desperate. But what can museums do to help? How can they engage with this vulnerable section of society? Some are working with homeless people on art installations. Others are highlighting issues that can lead to homelessness. Many museum projects are also working to challenge the stigma surrounding the subject.

Museums can highlight the issue of homelessness

The Museum of Homelessness is the first of its kind in the UK. It started in 2015 and deals with a lived experience of homelessness. The museum aims to “make the invisible, visible”. It highlights the homelessness crisis through various projects. It has held events such as film screenings, exhibitions and even an original opera.

In October 2018, the museum launched an interactive exhibition called ‘Objectified’. The opening coincided with World Homeless Day. It will run at the Manchester Art Gallery until mid-2019. The idea is to explore how society dehumanises and ignores homeless people. The installation features 20 objects. Many of the people who donated these have personal experiences of homelessness. These objects tell people’s stories and give an insight into their lives. Social neuroscientist Dr Lasana Harris contributes to the project too. Together they aim to explore the science behind how society responds to homelessness. The museum wants to use the exhibition to “challenge stereotypes about what it means to be homeless and reveal a history that’s too often hidden”.

Museums can challenge stigma

Stigma can be a heavy burden for homeless people. They are often disapproved of and discriminated against. Some projects are working to challenge this stigma by giving homeless people a voice and a chance to tell their own story. The Museum of Street Culture in Dallas, Texas is one such project. It aims to engage the public in a dialogue with people experiencing homelessness. It does this through urban creative arts.

Many of the museum’s exhibitions are currently held outside, in downtown Dallas. “The street is a great equalizer,” museum founder Alan Govenar says of the project. “It’s where the haves and the have-nots are side by side. And we want, with this museum, to emphasize our shared human experience.” Local homeless people run tours of the exhibitions, receiving training and a wage. The museum also holds art workshops with local children. Through these, children explore stereotypes around subjects such as shelter and family.

In the UK, Ripon Museums have also been working to help homeless people speak about their experiences. In 2018 the Workhouse Museum held an exhibition called ‘Homeless Not Faceless’. It ran in partnership with the Harrogate Homeless Project. The display featured stories and photographs of 12 people. They gave personal accounts of being homeless in their own words. When homelessness becomes a personal story, it helps audiences to engage with it.

Museums can provide a route to employment

For some homeless people, a volunteering opportunity can provide the help they need. In 2011 the London Transport Museum established a partnership with homeless charity St. Mungo’s. Together with The Happy Museum, they launched a project called ‘The Conversation Hub’.

London Transport Museum

The aim was to connect the museum space and the homeless people outside. The museum developed volunteer roles which were visible and useful. Some of these positions were engaging with the public. Others supported curators with maintaining historical vehicles. They also worked on community projects. Volunteers were able to gain new skills and build confidence.

The project was a runner up in the London Volunteer Awards. The Happy Museum spoke positively about the project. They said, “(LTM) became an active agent in the facilitation of a more integrated and happy local community.” It’s important to note that the volunteer roles weren’t a token. The museum intended these positions to add value to the museum. This was the key to giving the volunteers a meaningful experience.

Museums can tackle some of the causes of homelessness

One of the Design Museum’s designers in residence has been working on a radical new project. He believes it could help prevent a slide into homelessness or help others get back from it. Chris Hildrey noted that one of the hurdles that homeless people face is a lack of address. Without an address, they can end up missing things. This can range from Jobcentre appointments to benefits payments. It can make it difficult to get a job and to access support, trapping people in a vicious circle. As Hildrey notes, “When you become homeless, all the services you need, you can’t access, because you don’t have an address”

Hildrey called his project ProxyAddress and it aims to give every person in the UK an address. It makes a connection between the homeless people in the UK and the 500,000 plus empty homes around the country. Hildrey came up with the idea on a visit to London’s sorting office. He saw how the Royal Mail dealt with the 800,000 letters that children send to Santa each year. These go to a fictional proxy address. The processes behind the scenes mean that it is possible to change addresses in the database.

Homeless people don’t actually use the homes. But they can make use of the addresses for admin purposes while they are empty. ProxyAddress runs through a secure database. It matches available addresses with users. Homeless people are able to change their addresses on the database without complex processes. They can do it via email, or by text message. They can also allow organisations like the DWP access to the information.

Museums can provide therapeutic activities

Many museums also run programmes which give homeless people a break from their position. Art is often used as a form of therapy for all kinds of situations. The Royal Academy of Art has been running its Art Club since 2013. This outreach programme aims to get homeless people participating in the arts. Participants have said that the sessions are a vital outlet for them. They provide a way for people to explore their experiences

Artistic expression can be a way for people to reflect on their own stories. Projects like this can also increase confidence and help people feel part of a community. Another museum working to benefit homeless people is the Holburne Museum in Bath. They launched a three-year project in 2016 called ‘Pathways to Wellbeing’. The project gives homeless people an opportunity to create and exhibit art. It also provides mentored volunteer activities. The museum runs public engagement events and activities as part of the project too. It works to give vulnerable people a voice within museums

Museums can use art as activism

As a public forum, museums have a unique opportunity to use art as a form of activism. A great example of this is the Portland Art Museum. It recognised that homelessness was an important issue for people living in Portland. In 2017 it hosted an exhibition called ‘Quest for Beauty: The Architecture, Landscapes, and Collections of John Yeon’. Yeon was an architect and environmental activist.

The museum used the exhibition as a way to advocate for social change and highlight the need for action. It also worked with community groups and Portland State University. Together they looked at how good design could benefit vulnerable people. The museum displayed prototypes of shelters and sleeping pods. Local architects and designers drew up the creations for the display. The museum then hosted an event to bring people together and get some of the designs built.

Art as activism is not a new concept. In the 1980s, artist Krzysztof came up with an interesting new design. He called it the ‘Homeless Vehicle’. He spent time consulting with homeless people about their needs. It was a storage cart, table, sink and emergency bed all rolled into one. Wodiczko wanted to raise awareness of the challenges facing homeless people. He questioned, “What can we do as artists to be useful in our work?” The Homeless Vehicle sparked a renewed interest in art as social activism.

What are the challenges associated with museums helping homeless people?

Projects to help homeless people need a lot of planning. Creative outreach can make a difference in the lives of vulnerable people. But it needs to take place as part of a well-thought-out strategy. Museums need to outline what the goal of their project is, and how they intend to achieve it. Aims of the project need to be embedded in the museum’s values. It is this which will make an outreach programme sustainable. Long-term projects are key. Relationships with communities can take time to develop. Trust can take time to build. Some of the projects above have taken years to grow.

Homelessness is a complicated issue. The circumstances of participants can change from one day to the next. Museums need to be flexible in their approach. They must make sure that the programmes cater to the needs of those taking part.

Another huge issue is of course funding. Many of the above projects receive funding through grants and partnerships. It can be difficult to secure the long-term funding needed for a project to succeed. But it is often long-term projects which make a lasting difference.

Museums open to all

Museums are doing some great work in this area. Projects like those above help to break down the visible and invisible barriers that homeless people might face. They send a message that museums are open to all, and everyone should be able to enjoy them. By working with their local communities, museums can challenge stigma. They can highlight social issues and even improve lives.

About the author – Charlotte Coates

Charlotte Coates is a Brighton based writer working extensively in the arts and cultural spaces.

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