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Photo: Simon Buckley
Grandad, an artist who has experienced homelessness, is one of 33 people behind the “Doodle on Ducie Street” mural, part of the International Arts and Homelessness Festival and Summit in Manchester, UK. The event used art as part of a holistic approach to tackling homelessness.

So many initiatives to address the world’s problems feel like a drop in the bucket, but I have to believe that the bucket can be filled — even if it’s only one drop at a time, even if some drops spill out along the way and have to be replaced. Little things mean a lot if they hit a person just at the moment of receptivity.

In England, a homelessness summit last fall tested the potential of art to spark conversations between haves and have-nots and also to give homeless people a reason to get up in the morning. Helen Lock has the story at the Guardian.

“Two armchairs are facing each other in the Whitworth art gallery in Manchester. Denise Harrison, a mental health blogger with past experience of homelessness, is sitting in one of them, waiting for questions.

“A member of the public sits down opposite her, and tentatively asks if she thinks it’s OK to give money to people on the street, as charities discourage it. ‘It’s down to personal choice – you shouldn’t feel bad if you do or if don’t,’ replies Harrison. ‘Some worry it’s enabling addictions, but it’s also providing someone with the option to pay for shelter. On the street, someone can end up with several free McDonald’s burgers but nowhere to sleep that night.’ …

“Dialogues are part of a performance artwork called Are You Sitting Comfortably? by the artist Emma Turner, who felt the public were becoming inured to homelessness in Manchester. The official number of rough sleepers was 278 in 2017, a 41% increase on the previous year, but the true number of its homeless people – counting those in temporary accommodation – is likely to be much higher.

“As Harrison says of her time suffering with alcohol addiction and sofa surfing after the breakdown of her marriage: ‘It’s scary how quickly a situation that was so abnormal became normal, my new normal. It can happen to anyone.’

”The work was part of the inaugural International Arts and Homelessness Festival and Summit, running 12-18 November [2018], which explored a potentially contentious idea: the role of arts and culture in tackling homelessness.

“Manchester was chosen for the event because the city council’s homelessness strategy for the next five years explicitly includes a commitment to increasing access to arts, and because of how the city’s cultural sector has stepped forward to provide support for the council’s plan. …

“Third sector organisations began working together to approach the council, consulting businesses, universities, cultural organisations and the faith sector, as well as people with experience of homelessness. Their findings underpinned the new Manchester Homelessness Charter. … Officials will now work towards what is described as a jigsaw of homelessness support approaches, rather than focusing exclusively on immediate needs such as shelter and healthcare. This includes the chance to meet people, build skills and have fun. …

“But how would this approach work in practice when the crisis is so severe? Beth Knowles, an adviser on homelessness for the mayor’s office, reiterated that the call for a more holistic approach came from homelessness services themselves – even frontline providers such as the night shelters.

“ ‘I’ve spoken to some about trialling the jigsaw approach,’ she said, ‘and while it might not seem the most immediate thing when you’re trying to find beds, some see the value in maybe having some singing or photography sessions on site, because it’s worked well.

‘Of course, not every council officer is going to see this as a priority. But to do something, it doesn’t have to be a priority. It’s part of a whole package. It’s about what that individual needs and offering it.’

“[According to Amanda Croome, chief executive of the Booth Centre, a day facility for people who are homeless or at risk,] ‘We find that if you put someone into a flat and they have no support network, no interests and nothing to do, then very often in six months they’ll be back on the street. What the arts do is give people a new perspective.’

“Lawrence McGill has become an avid gardener since first becoming a regular visitor to the Booth Centre, filling salvaged containers with soil and seeds. He has also written poetry, and a song, ‘Spinning Plates,’ about juggling life’s hardships. ‘My life started the day I stepped into this place.’ ”

Read about other aspects of the festival, including a description of the “immersive opera” Man on a Bench, here.

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Did you read the Ancient Greek tragedy Antigone, by Sophocles, in school? I was actually in a college production — performed in Greek. It was much too hard for me, even with my bit part.

But in high school, the play really captured my imagination with its young heroine insisting that the higher laws required her to give her rebel brother a proper burial and the king determined to make an example of rebels.

Anyway, that’s how I remember dinner discussions — my aunt and uncle arguing for the power of the state and me arguing for rebels.

So you may imagine how intrigued I was when I saw that a theater troop was enlisting big stars to bring Antigone (in English) to Ferguson, Missouri, to generate a community dialogue. Ferguson was where the majority of Americans first became aware of the issues that have led to the Black Lives Matter movement.

National Public Radio alerted listeners to the event, here.

“WILLIS RYDER ARNOLD (REPORTER): Bryan Doerries is a director who puts on ancient Greek plays. He says his productions aren’t boring classroom exercises.

“BRYAN DOERRIES: These are readings on steroids, and spit is flying and tears are projectile crying off the stage, and sounds are coming up out of the actors that they’ve never heard themselves make before.

“ARNOLD: After the performance, Doerries asks the audience to react. He leads a conversation that can take as long as the actual play. For him, the performance is a chance to ask some deeper questions.

“DOERRIES: How many different ways can we give you, as the audience, permission to have a conversation that wouldn’t otherwise be possible, to speak your personal truths, to be acknowledged and heard?

“ARNOLD: A local resident urged Doerries to bring his project to Ferguson. Doerries will present ‘Antigone.’ ”

The plan for “Antigone in Ferguson,” developed by Outside the Wire and the PopTech Institute, and co-presented by the Onassis Foundation USA, was as follows:

“Screening of selected segments from the documentary Antigone in Ferguson, followed by a dramatic reading of scenes from Antigone with Reg E. Cathey (House of Cards, The Wire), Gloria Reuben (ER), Glenn Davis (24, The Unit), and Samira Wiley (Orange Is the New Black).

“The reading will be followed by a town hall discussion, framed by remarks from community panelists — including members of law enforcement, activists, and concerned citizens — facilitated by Bryan Doerries, with the goal of generating powerful dialogue and fostering compassion, understanding, and positive action.”

I managed to find twitter reactions the day after the Sept. 17 performance:

Sep 18 Amazing! brought the community together through art and our own human experiences!
Sep 18 All of tonight’s was incredible. Thank you . Wow.
Sep 17 I wish everyone I know could have been at the reading of Antigone in Ferguson by . Church choir as Greek chorus? Amen

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So much anxiety about “the others” these days, anxiety that is seldom based on knowing even one of those others!

That is why I found this story by Steve Annear in the Boston Globe so charming and important.

He wrote, “Mona Haydar knew that when she set up two signs outside a Cambridge library [in December] with the words ”Ask a Muslim’ and ‘Talk to a Muslim,’ she had to be prepared for strong opinions about her faith.

“But the Duxbury resident said the impromptu experiment led to a meaningful series of conversations about religion, politics, history, and sports. It was an experience that, even in a time of prejudice against Muslims, showed Haydar that ‘the community is loving.’

“ ‘We just wanted to talk to people and we didn’t see any harm in doing that,’ said Haydar. ‘We are just normal people. There is definitely fear [in America], and I want to talk about it, because it’s actually misplaced and misguided — I am really nice!’

“Holding a box of doughnuts and cartons of coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts, and wearing a traditional hijab, Haydar last Friday and Saturday planted herself alongside her husband, Sebastian Robins, outside the library for several hours each day.

“Haydar said that over the two days they spoke with more than 100 strangers. The initiative, she said, was inspired by a similar act, called Talk to an Iraqi, that was featured on ‘This American Life’ in 2008.” More here.

I’d say she gave a gift to the Cambridge populace, which although considered open-minded, is not monolithic. And she seems to have received a gift in return: the satisfaction of initiating an important conversation and of confirming that the majority of people are kind.

Photo: Mona Haydar
Mona Haydar and her husband, Sebastian Robins, stood outside of a library in Cambridge.

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Sometimes it’s hard to remember the details of what I did last week, or even today. If it’s a question of work, I can review my calendar, the e-mails I sent, or see what I checked off my checklist.

But the things that seem important and keep popping up in my head are shreds of conversations the details of which I can’t always remember. Who said that to me? And where? Was it in the hallway, the ladies room, the cafeteria, walking into the building, waiting to go through the security line? Was it someone I see a lot? A stranger at a food truck?

My new project is to do a better job of holding on to these brief but significant interactions.

One day, as I approached the cafeteria with a colleague, I asked if he went to his vacation home at this time of year. He said, “No. I rented it for the summer, and a new tenant is coming in for the winter. I had to remortgage it to pay for my mother’s care. She had Alzheimer’s.”

The woman in the office across the hall mentioned the supermoon and eclipse: “At first I thought it would be something huge and orange. We were going to make an event, take a blanket and a thermos to the beach and watch it from there. But after reading about it online, we scaled back our expectations about huge and orange and were happy watching from the front yard.”

Coming into the building with my lunch, I met another woman coming out. We hadn’t seen each other for weeks and stopped to chat. I admired her earrings. She said they were from the Rhode Island School of Design and told me her son just started grad school there. We talked about the wonderful craft sales RISD has, and I said I especially like the one where they block off several streets sometime around Mother’s Day.

Going home on the train, I sat next to a co-worker who had been strung out with anxiety about her only child, six months old, who had a fierce case of croup that got her hospitalized for a whole weekend. My colleague thought the baby was starting to pull out of it. As she talked about how cheerful the little girl is and how much she loves to carry her in the baby carrier next to her chest, the subway car seemed to fill with love and lift toward the heavens.

071415-clouds

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An experimental theater piece to test the Theory of Purposefully Divided Attention to Fend Off Meltdowns.
Cast: Grandma (G), Adult One (1), Adult Two (2), Adult Three (3), Small Child (Small)
Setting: Dinner table

G: Why is your hairdresser your hero?

1: She’s a real bootstrap entrepreneur. She’ll try anything.

G: Is that a blackberry in your popsicle?

Small: No, a blueberry.

2: Well, when you have kids, you can’t participate in every charity event or random partnership.

3: You have to prioritize, be strategic. Know when to say no.

1: But she has a great community reputation. She’s so upbeat.

G: I really think that’s a blackberry. Like Mrs. Rabbit’s in Peter Rabbit. Supporting everything in the community can add up.

1: It rolls up.

3: But you can waste a lot of time.

2: And energy.

G: People are grateful, though. If you’re strategic, you miss the kind of opportunities that you have no idea where they will lead. I like the way that popsicle drips right into the holder. It’s less messy.

Small: Do you want one?

G: I don’t want to take your last popsicle.

Small: We can make more.

G: Maybe after dinner.

Small: Let’s do it!

G: Careful — the juice is spilling. One and one and 50 make a million. It’s good to be open to serendipity if you possibly can.

2: There are only so many hours in the day.

3: Numerous small investments can’t get what one big investment would.

G: Do you want a napkin?

Small: I got a green popsicle at Whole Foods, but it dripped all over my dragon shirt. It was green.

G: There is nothing like a reputation for being upbeat and cooperative. I know where we can pick blackberries for the next batch of popsicles.

Small: But you have to add juice so it sticks together.

1: We now trade services. She does that with almost everyone. I feel like she could teach a class in entrepreneurship.

G: Teach one together, how about?

Small: Do you want a popsicle? Do you want one now?

G: Maybe after dinner. Look, that’s a raspberry. Or do you think it’s a strawberry?

Small: Do you want a popsicle now? I can go get it. We can make more later. Yes or no?

G: OK. Yes.

Small: Say, Please.

G: Yes, please.

Photo: Matthew Klein

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