Making Home: How Creative Placemaking Can Combat Homelessness

By Lindsey Leahy

When you think of the difference between a house and a home, what comes to mind?

If you’re like most of the people we’ve asked, you might say that a house is a structure—a shelter from the elements, a place to crash at the end of a long day. A home, in contrast, might bring to mind the people, the smells, the treasured things that fill the space of a house. A home is a safe haven, a storied space that reflects one’s personal aesthetic, history, and aspirations.

It was this distinction that led us to collaborate with The Haven, Charlottesville, Virginia’s multi-resource day shelter, to create the cross-sector Housing2Home program. Our theory was that state-funded rental subsidies combined with creative interventions—more simply, homemaking—would improve stability among formerly-homeless clients. We set out to work with our clients to make their new house feel like home–for some that means decorating with zebra print, hanging a painting of a beach scene, carving out space on a back porch for a woodworking shop, or having a table large enough to host a pastor and his family for dinner.

Ours is a creative placemaking project, one rooted in a comprehensive model of community planning and development that integrates arts and culture to create place-based change. In creative placemaking, we start with a community—a group of people who live and work in a defined area—and identify a change the community wants to see. We then ask how art and culture might be used to help create change and determine a way to determine whether the change has happened.

The process of creative placemaking is one that utilizes artists, arts organizations, and creative activities to facilitate conversations, visualize possibilities, recognize a community’s existing assets and potential, and energize people to engage the work. At its heart, creative placemaking is about building a community structure through deepening connections among people and organizations with a diverse set of skills and resources in order to empower the community to make the changes they want to see happen. In creative placemaking, the process and the outcome of a project are equally important.

In Charlottesville, over 25% of the city’s residents live in poverty and over 500 families and individuals experience homelessness every year. Seeking to provide immediate and long-term stability for those experiencing homelessness in our community, the Haven takes a housing first approach, working quickly to secure safe housing and providing supportive services and community connections to prevent future homelessness.

Strategies to end homelessness are typically focused entirely on providing shelter—on placing a person without a place to live into a house.
Imagine for a moment that you have lost much—your home, your possessions, your job, perhaps even your family and friends. You get by, day by day, sleeping at a shelter or finding reprieve from the elements in a car or a tent. Along the way, you connect with a handful of others who are facing similar challenges. One day, a case manager at the day shelter where you eat breakfast and shower tells you that she has found a small apartment for you. Your rent will be subsidized for six months. You’re relieved. You thank God, you feel like you have a new lease on life.

You open the door to your new house for the first time and walk in, carrying a backpack and a few grocery bags filled with your possessions.

This is the moment where the narrative often ends, with the housing of a formerly homeless client. But we at New City Arts Initiative and the Haven believe that this is actually a pivotal moment for the rest of the story—and this is where Housing2Home and creative placemaking comes in.

H2H-CourtneyAdrian-0017H2H-CourtneyAdrian-0010H2H-Connie-0002Through the Housing2Home program, we facilitate homemaking sessions with newly housed clients of The Haven. Clients work with a creative coordinator to make a list of must-haves (a bed, pots and pans, dishes, and towels, for example) and envision what things might help make their house feel like home. We emphasize client choice and work to create personalized, comfortable, happy spaces. When clients express that they’d like to find a certain kind of art—a painting, a family photograph, a quilt—we commission local artists to do the work, creating connections between people and communities that otherwise might never intersect.

Dave’s story

Ultimately, we have to ask: by what measure do we know this program is successful? How do we determine whether the change—a more stable housing situation—has happened? Admittedly, it’s a bit difficult to produce data points demonstrating the long-term impact of the dozens of locally-commissioned art pieces in our clients’ homes on their stabilization. But we can see a marked shift in the way many of our clients think about their new space, how their eyes light up when they find a pair of curtains in the exact shade they imagined, or how they begin to imagine what art they might get to fill their empty walls.

Perhaps the most telling, and unexpected, marker of the kind of outcome we’re hoping to see is the delight many of our clients take in having people over to their home. Having once expressed feelings of isolation, these clients are able to offer hospitality and reestablish themselves in their community, with their home at its center.

When thinking of basic needs, we generally think of food, water, and shelter. Beauty is considered a luxury rather than a necessity. In this case, though, the creative elements of the Housing2Home program are helping people reintegrate into their neighborhoods and community, even helping them strengthen and renew relationships that have been strained or broken.

Arts are improving the strategy to end homelessness. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Humans were created to recognize, appreciate, and make beauty. Perhaps we can survive without it, but we certainly cannot thrive—as individuals or as communities.

Lindsey Leahy serves as Program Manager for New City Arts Initiative and Creative Coordinator for Housing2Home, a collaborative, cross-sector program between New City Arts and the Haven. Born and raised in the shadow of the Blue Ridge, she’s happiest when she’s walking in the woods with her daughter and husband or sipping a cup of black coffee with a view of the mountains.

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