Look Ahead Housing uses art to build users’ self-esteem

A housing and support organisation is looking to do more than manage the rent or provide training for work as a means to build self-esteem in its service users. Graham Hopkins reports

Joy, beauty, creativity and fun are perhaps not the first words that come to mind when you think of organisations that provide housing and support to homeless and vulnerable people. But Look Ahead Housing and Care might make you think again: it’s a housing charity, which supports more than 3,000 people in London and the South East, that proudly wears its art on its sleeve. It even employs an arts manager.

“We know that the vital first step back to social inclusion is helping build self-confidence and self-esteem,” says chief executive, Victoria Stark. “And that is where joy, beauty, creativity and fun come in. That is why our arts programme is now integral to the delivery of our care and support services.”

Look Ahead’s ground-breaking (literally in the case of its garden designs) arts programme has been as an integral part of its work for more than 10 years. Funded by external grants, it aims to encourage service user involvement, create opportunities for service users to become integrated with their local arts organisations and community, and improve the environments in which they live.

Look Ahead has worked with more than 70 artists on 35 projects, involved more than 1,000 service users and staff, and teamed up with the likes of the Tate Modern, the Serpentine Gallery, the Museum of London, Soho Theatre, Theatre Museum, National Portrait Gallery and English National Opera.

The arts programme has four strands: a public art programme; a youth arts programme; participatory projects; and small grants projects – where service users can apply to fund their own ideas.

“We started employing artists about 12 years ago,” says arts manager Tessa Fitzjohn, who manages the projects and finds the partners and the artists. “Our chief executive has a real commitment to the arts as a way of transforming people’s lives. For me, it’s about participants engaging with the outside world and having a role – something that makes them feel good in the morning when they get up.”

It’s an ethos set to paint itself on 20 self-contained studio flats in Campbell Road, east London for homeless people aged 16-23 with medium-to-high support needs. “It’s a fairly sparse building – not one designed by Look Ahead – but we’re putting the artist Ella Gibbs in there to talk to people to find out what they want and create a new work,” says Fitzjohn.

Gibbs, she says, is researching possible projects from a film night (where service users choose films) to setting up a gallery in the communal spaces; from creating their own newspaper and setting up a radio network to working with people in the community.

Fitzjohn says: “We want projects with which service users engage but also which the community could come into the hostel and share. Through these activities Gibbs is going to talk about what art they would like in the building – and start to define the work.”

The arts programme, in return, helps service users to define themselves. “It was a bit of time and space to exert my energy into something constructive,” says service user Mike Hughes.* “I didn’t get told off for being loud, it was a chance to explain myself my way. It gave me a chance to learn skills I can’t learn anywhere else: how to read people’s body language, the meaning behind songs and the emotions they provoke and so on.”

As for the meaning behind the programme, Fitzjohn says: “It’s about enabling young people in particular to gain enough confidence in their own abilities to move out of supported housing,” she says. “And for older people who have been homeless for many years it’s about giving them a sense of purpose and some joie de vivre.

“For many older people it’s hard to know what they will do with their lives. For homeless people art gives their lives meaning. If they find that they can sing, or write poetry or paint pictures and if that work becomes valued in the wider community that may begin to help them take other steps out into that community. And it has been proved over and again that this works. That’s why Look Ahead does this work.”

* Not his real name

Project Outcomes

  • Increases in personal stability, confidence and capacity to make plans and aspirations.
  • Improvements in literacy, numeracy, communications skills and self-motivation.
  • Opportunities to become involved in decision-making which improve self-esteem.
  • Opportunities to become involved with a range of art forms and visit venues from which they might otherwise be excluded.
  • Creates long-term links with local arts organisations that can be nurtured and continued once they have moved on.
  • Opportunities to work with people across a range of cultural, ethnic and social backgrounds through the choice of artists working on the projects.

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