Reports and Briefs
Charts and Graphics
American Almanac
Journal of Children & Poverty


The Art of Creating Stability

By Carol Ward

Homeless Children Find Confidence, Trust, and Expression through Arts Programs

Summer 2011

Free arts of Airzone finds that children respond different to various types of art, so they encourage children to create artwork using multiple media. Tissue paper, construction paper, and marker were used to create this collage.

Twelve-year-old “Jose” likes to rap. At the shelter in which he currently resides in New York City, the boy participates in music classes offered weekly by Art Start, a nonprofit group that provides art programming at three shelters in the city.

“I like to rap and do drums,” Jose says. “I rap about living in the shelter,” he says, noting his frustrations with his current situation. Putting his thoughts in rap form makes things “a little bit” better.

Across the country in Portland, Oregon, a homeless young adult who goes by the name of Jukeboxxxe has found a sanctuary at p:ear, a group dedicated to building positive relationships through art and education with homeless and transitional youth up to age 24. Jukeboxxxe, who became homeless as a teen, says p:ear is an escape from life on the street.

“It’s kind of a sanctuary where I can work on my music and hang out with friends and not have to worry about influences that are easily found on the street,” Jukeboxxxe says. P:ear has a music room as well as areas devoted to other arts, and Jukeboxxxe uses the facility to practice for his stints as a street performer.

Arts programs that attempt to positively impact the lives of homeless children and teens can be found in a few major cities, super-sizing the less formalized “arts and crafts” sessions offered in some shelters and homeless outreach facilities. Options run the gamut, from painting and drawing to theater to music and dance. A few are formalized “teaching”’ programs but most just seek to provide a creative diversion and a bit of therapy for some of society’s most vulnerable children.

The art programs can also fill an educational gap caused by the pullback by most school districts in art education.
According to a recent report from the National Endowment for the Arts, just 49.5% of 18-year-olds in 2008 had arts
education between 1990 and 2007. That compares to 65% of 18-year-olds who had arts education between 1964 and 1981, the study said. While that study encompasses all children, no matter what their socioeconomic level, other studies suggest disadvantaged children are bearing the brunt of the cutbacks. A 2009 report on Access to Arts Education published by the Government Accountability Office found that teachers at schools identified as needing improvement and those with higher percentages of minority students were more likely to report a reduction in time spent on the arts.

Creativity and Stability

When working with homeless and at-risk children and teens, the art itself often takes a backseat to other, more basic goals. “We’re not trying to make them into little painters or bass players,” Johanna de los Santos, executive director of Art Start, says of the homeless children who receive instruction from the group’s artists and volunteers.

“First and foremost our goal is just having regular programming in a place that is inherently unstable,” de los Santos says. “In the city shelters families don’t have a lot of freedom, and they don’t really know from one week to the next whether they’re going to be living there or not. But they know we’re going to be there, they know they’ll see the same faces and there are the same rules and expectations when they show up.”

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