Comfort and Joy: Our Response to Homelessness

Plymouth Housing Group residents and staff following the premiere of their composition We Are the Art performed with Seattle Symphony musicians in Benaroya Hall last August.

By Rosalie Contreras

“When I took this class I had no idea what to expect…I was unsure what I had to offer. After a few classes it dawned on me that this is the definition of Community. The beauty of Art is that it can be molded into many forms. To be able to add something of my own freedom of self-expression and put it together with other artful minds-alike, demonstrates the beauty of a Community in its artful form.” – Artistic Residency Project Participant from Path with Art

The stories are tough to hear. Stories of kids doing homework by the dim glow of a car dome light, not wanting anyone at school to know their secret. A dad with a long-term illness that exhausts all available financial resources. A mom with young children, escaping domestic violence.

After five years of partnering with groups serving those experiencing homelessness, Simple Gifts was formally launched in June 2016 at a luncheon honoring all 60 of the Seattle Symphony Community Connections partner organizations. From left: President & CEO Simon Woods, City of Seattle Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim, City of Seattle Office of Arts & Culture Director Randy Engstrom, Mary’s Place Executive Director Marty Hartman and Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot.

Over the past several years the Seattle Symphony has been learning about the effects of homelessness on individuals through our own panel of experts, our 16 Community Connections partners who specifically serve people experiencing homelessness. We have learned much from listening to our partners and hearing the stories of the people and families they serve. The consequences of homelessness are not just mental and physical, they are social, emotional and long-lasting. And on the surface, these realities may seem a long ways from the Seattle Symphony.

Yet, the homelessness crisis has everything to do with who we are, and with our mission to unleash the power of music, bring people together, and lift the human spirit. We know that homelessness causes trauma and that music can relieve trauma. We know that people experiencing homelessness often feel exhausted or invisible, and we know that attending performances gives respite and creates a connection to the rest of society.

“I never would have imagined being able to enjoy such a wonderful cultural and musical experience at this point in my life, especially given where I came from just a month ago. …This concert was the right thing at the right time. I felt like a whole person again. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for that.” – FareStart Student

We also know that participating in, or creating a work of music or art, compels one to be seen and to be heard. The creativity generated by engaging in artistic activities builds confidence, influences self-perceptions and helps to open minds to creative problem solving in other areas of life.

With knowledge that we could play a part in our city’s homelessness crisis, we worked with our partners last summer to launch Simple Gifts, a multi-year initiative that shares the inspiration of music with those experiencing homelessness. Our goal is to spark joy, alleviate trauma and connect individuals with their creativity through artistic projects, residencies and access to performances.

This is not entirely new work for the Symphony. Since the Community Connections program began in 2010, over 6,000 tickets have been given free to community members who would not otherwise be able to afford tickets to the Symphony. These tickets are distributed through 60 partner nonprofits across six sectors including youth, cultural, health services, social services, seniors and military organizations. Sixteen of our partners specialize in serving people who are homeless, and many others serve low-income groups or those who are at risk of homelessness.

Mary’s Place residents with Seattle Symphony staff at the sharing session for the third annual Lullaby Project at Mary’s Place. Photo: Brandon Patoc

In addition, Seattle Symphony Teaching Artists make close to 80 community site visits each year to numerous community partners. Residencies are a regular and consistent presence where Teaching Artists support specific partner goals, such as building self-advocacy, self-efficacy, resiliency, creativity and teamwork skills. Residencies serving those experiencing homelessness include Mary’s Place Musical Storytime (since 2013), Prospect Enrichment Preschool Musical Storytime (since 2014) and Plymouth Housing Group (summer 2016).

As we continue to ramp up Simple Gifts, we’ve built on our 3-year partnership with Mary’s Place, which shelters families experiencing homelessness. Over the past year we completed Artistic Residency projects with two more incredible organizations – Path with Art and Plymouth Housing Group – creating artistic projects that resulted in performances of original music by clients, students and residents. Path with Art transforms the lives of people recovering from homelessness, addiction and other trauma by harnessing the power of creative engagement as a bridge to community and a path to stability, and Plymouth Housing Group transforms lives by providing permanent, supportive homes to homeless people with few other options for housing.

What’s next for Simple Gifts?

Charles Ives’ New England Holidays, February 2 & 4

In October, Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot, University of Washington School of Music professor and noted Ives scholar Larry Starr, visual artist Rebecca Aitken, Seattle’s Civic Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna and participants from Compass Housing Alliance, Mary’s Place and Catholic Housing Services met for the first time to begin creating original poetry and artwork in response to Charles Ives’ New England Holidays. You will see and hear their work during the February 2 and 4 Masterworks Season performances. The piece was chosen to spark conversation, inspire reflection and amplify the voice of the participants, while building deeper connections with the wider Symphony audience.

We Are All Here, March 8

In November work began in earnest with Path with Art students who are engaged in a 16-week residency to create an original score, inspired by artistic banners created by Path with Art students as part of the organization’s interdisciplinary, community-based, year-long We Are All Here project. The resulting score will be premiered by Path with Art students and a Seattle Symphony chamber ensemble on March 8, 2017 against the backdrop of their artistic banners.

“We have heard repeatedly from our partners working in the area of homelessness that creativity in art and music enhances problem-solving in other areas of life,” said Laura Reynolds, Seattle Symphony Director of Education & Community Engagement. “When we give someone a concert ticket, it’s a moment of respite and beauty. When we engage someone in art-making, we hear how it changed the way they see themselves and process trauma.”

How You Can Help

We hope you will learn more about these organizations and seek out opportunities to help others in your own communities. It can be the simple gift of time spent volunteering. It can be the gift of becoming more attuned to the root causes of homelessness and what can be done to help people experiencing this low time in their lives. It can be attending these Symphony performances where the art and music and poetry of some of our most vulnerable citizens will be shared. To someone so accustomed to going unseen, this is a gift in and of itself.

Thank you for joining us in lifting up our fellow community members, and thank you for being part of our journey of giving Simple Gifts. To support Simple Gifts, give online or call Donor Relations at 206.215.4832. Every gift makes a difference!


Posted on December 9, 2016