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Wednesday, 16 December 2015

University psychologist's initiative using art to help homeless regain voice and dignity

Written by The Editorial Team
An exhibition of art by the homeless is being organised to counter negative attitudes to rough sleepers and to help them regain their voice and dignity.

University of Brighton psychologist Bruno De Oliveira (pictured) said the homeless should be regarded like anyone else, people with aspirations and feelings, and not people to be shunned and marginalised. The exhibition, he said, will go some way towards this end by demonstrating their skills and talents.

With more homeless on the streets of Brighton and Hove than in past years, he said, the need for change was greater than ever. The way society treats rough sleepers at present, he said, is a “form of violence”.

He said: “We in the UK enjoy the fifth highest gross domestic product in the world yet we have people left on the streets to rot.

“The homeless are more likely to die young – their average lifespan is 47, some 30 years less than for others. And some councils around the country are threatening to fine the homeless up to £1,000 – this is an example of how society fears and blames the homeless when what we really need are ways to bring them and society closer together, to bring the two into dialogue with each other.”

He is working with the homeless, his “experts in the field and co-researchers”, and between them they have come up with the idea of an art exhibition for next year’s Brighton Fringe. He currently is trying to raise £1,000 to provide rough sleepers with paints and canvasses.

They are working at Emmaus Brighton & Hove, the homelessness charity in Portslade, and University of Brighton art students have volunteered to help them. Some students have already been passing on their skills to the homeless at Emmaus workshops.

Third year student Lilly White told what was important to her about engaging with the homeless: “Having the respect for each other as humans on this earth, disregarding labels, stereotypes, social class, ethnicity, age, gender… the experience made it essential that working with people, communicating as humans, not as homeless, lesbian, single, married, working class, student, adult, child, black, Asian, white etc is key.”

Bruno said: “The idea is not just to have a better understanding of homelessness but to bring social change and emancipation with the people I am working with.”

Two Emmaus residents who are taking part in the Fringe exhibition are Matt and Lee. Matt said: “The exhibition and Bruno’s talk to us has definitely had an impact.

“I came to Emmaus because I’d split up with a girlfriend … I had no money to move somewhere else because I was volunteering for a charity at the time. I chose the work path, rather than signing on and being in a hostel which you can never get out of. Not everyone at Emmaus has slept on the streets.

“I’ve always been an artist. I’ve done all sorts of art and graphic design. I’m into textile design, lots of things really, painting, anything creative. My main passion is letter work but I am apprenticing as a tattooist now. Making furniture and tattooing are what I want to be doing when I leave here.”

Lee said: “I came to Emmaus in 2009, I was very sick for about ten years and that led to me losing my home and ended my relationship. My version of homeless was living in backpackers’ hostels, not enough money to secure tenancy but enough to keep me off of the streets.

“All the time I didn’t have enough money for hotels or hostels I would be what I would consider as among the hidden homeless, I had a tent and a backpack and I would wander off into the hills and take a few days’ worth of food and water.

“I accidently came across Emmaus; I was looking around to see what I could do in terms of volunteering. I really liked their ethos because it’s not just about homelessness here. You earn your way through life at Emmaus, which is what I believe everybody should do.”

Lee said he liked Bruno’s project because “it is challenging the media’s perception of homelessness” and is opening space for questions such as “‘if someone has experienced homelessness for three months, is that their life? What about the 40 years beforehand and what they’ve previously provided within society?”

Carl Walker, Principal Lecturer in the School of Applied Social Science: "Bruno’s work with Emmaus is an exemplar of the way that co-produced work between community organisations and university students can highlight and address key issues for marginalised groups in and around our city. Bruno was central in instigating and helping to coordinate a project which has been widely praised by a range of stakeholders and laid the foundations for a fruitful partnership between the university and key stakeholders seeking to work with homeless people in Brighton.”

Bruno left his native Brazil to study psychology at the University of Brighton. He gained a Masters with merit in Community Psychology and is now exploring homelessness art-based research for his PhD.