At last count, about 3,000 people sleep on the streets of Seattle every night. Thousands more live in transitional or insecure housing, while others couch surf or sleep in cars. Anyone with two eyes, a heart, and a view of a tent city wants to do something about our housing crisis, which only grows more vexing considering the growing list of national crises demanding urgent attention with every passing hour of Trump's reign of terror.
And yet, no one seems to know what to actually do about it. The problem's magnitude and complexity have troubled every group that has tried to deal with it: city government, private relief charities, concerned citizens, and even arts organizations.
Local arts groups dealing with homelessness as a subject or a source of activism meet the dilemmas that always attend the task of simultaneously doing social good and putting butts in seats. But they also face a paradox particular to Seattle. Our progressive zeal leads us to demand of any major institution: "What are the arts doing to address homelessness?"
Our contrarian skepticism then leads to the follow-up question: "What can the arts do about homelessness?" Bore people to death with a Berlioz concerto? Photograph their prostration? Exploit them for grant money in a woke af marketing campaign? People who don't have housing need housing, not music appreciation classes.
But complex problems require creative action.
This week, the largest arts organization in Washington State builds on an ambitious program that seeks to answer both of these contradictory questions, while also extending its aesthetic commitment. Enter the Seattle Symphony's "Simple Gifts" initiative.
THE TRUE, THE GOOD, AND THE BEAUTIFUL
Simple Gifts is a multiyear commitment created under the guidance and counsel of 18 "community partners" including Path with Art, Mary's Place, and Plymouth Housing Group.
According to Seattle Symphony president and CEO Simon Woods, the organization started talking about the issue back in 2011, with the "Creative Connections" initiative. Last year, when the homelessness crisis earned emergency status, the talk escalated, too. In a series of meetings with the partners, the Symphony asked what it could do to help as a music organization. The answer they came up with was Simple Gifts, a series of projects designed to "unleash the power of music, bring people together, and lift the human spirit." That's PR talk for "do cool music, raise awareness about the issue among your audience, and maybe donate some tickets so that the disadvantaged feel like neighbors and not numbers."
One of these Simple Gifts projects is the "Lullaby Project," wherein orchestra musicians work with mothers experiencing homelessness to compose a personal lullaby they can sing to their children. The results are staggeringly beautiful. Another is called "All of Us Belong," which is where the avant-garde American composer Charles Ives comes in.
On February 2 and 4, the symphony will present Ives's New England Holidays. The piece has four movements, each of which corresponds to a holiday and its attendant season: Washington's Birthday/winter, Decoration Day/spring, Independence Day/summer, and Thanksgiving/fall.
Between each movement, the symphony will project, onto a screen above the orchestra, original multimedia artwork created by 19 self-selected participants from four different organizations: Dorothy Day House (a Catholic org that provides long-term housing for women), Compass Housing Alliance (an umbrella org that handles everything from shelters to permanent housing), Cascade Women's Program (part of CHA that currently offers transitional housing and services for single women), and Mary's Place (a shelter for families).
Before each movement, Seattle civic poet Claudia Castro Luna will read sections of a poem inspired by Ives's composition and by the conversations she overheard while sitting in on the workshops the participant-artists attended. (In the original composition, Ives included personal narratives before each of the movements, so the poem replaces that text.)
The show is part of their Masterworks Series, and it shares billing with Emanuel Ax—one of the most famous pianists in the world—playing Beethoven's Emperor. Subscribers had already bought their tickets before the symphony worked these new elements into the show, so the crowd will likely be packed with regulars.
Larry Starr, a professor of American music studies at the University of Washington, regularly hosts pre-concert talks with the symphony. He says the symphony's incorporation of amateur artists into the performance is in keeping with Ives's ethos.
"Ives learned how to make modern music by listening to American, small-town music making at the turn of the 20th century," Starr told me. "For him, the discordance of amateur music—church choirs, school bands, choruses—was glorious. It was much more exciting than professional music making, because the people were just expressing their feelings."
New England Holidays sounds like the soundtrack to an actual American dream. Popular patriotic tunes warp into discordant woodwinds and crashing cymbals. Lyric strings evoke amber waves of grain while soaring brass raises purple mountain majesties from the ground, and then, suddenly, the orchestra drops down to a low, menacing simmer. It's boom and bust, as beautiful as it is brutal.
Symphony teaching artist Rebecca Joy Aitken, who's been an art instructor at all education levels for 10 years, and who speaks with the warmth and clarity of someone you trust immediately, explored the emotional resonances of New England Holidays with the participants in workshops.
"Ives has this tension of many, many moods going on in each movement," Aitken told me. "There's happiness and sadness and chaos happening in each of these movements. So we talked a lot about how that's connected to their memories and their stories.
Aitken created the schema for the visual art project and led the workshops designed to teach participants how to tell their stories using the tools of art. They think about audience, musical ekphrasis, their personal connection to the music, and how to critique each other's art respectfully.
"I told them they don't have to tell happy stories or sad stories," she said. "Our memories usually have conflicting emotions, conflicting experiences, and because we're making art in layers, their stories can layer like that."
The object the participants make reflects that layering process. It's a drawing layered over a professional photographic portrait of themselves. Once projected onto the screen, the drawing will fade in as the portrait fades out, a transmutation of the person into the picture that tells some aspect of their story.
Ivory, 31, who I saw at the Dorothy Day workshop and talked with later over tacos, traced her face and shaded half of it in darkness.
She said, "2016—what a fuckin' year." In September she'd been sent to the hospital after a suicide attempt. "I had a whole lot of nothing going on for me at the time—people need something for them to keep living." She was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder after being treated only for depression years beforehand, hence the face half-smeared with charcoal. "I just feel like either I'm in the dark or the light," she said.
She'd heard of Ives's work through a classical music list she occasionally browses on 4chan (and she's a big fan of Joanna Newsom besides, and her favorite book is Plath's The Bell Jar but she's reading Shirley Jackson right now <3 <3 <3), and, because "there ain't nothin' better to do," she decided to attend the workshop.
Ivory enjoyed the workshops not only for the art making but for the connections she formed with her neighbors. She told me she was nervous to see how it'll all come out, and said she'd like to see more projects like it. "The system can seem pretty impersonal," she said. "I feel like a burden sometimes, but I don't get that sense from the teachers."
"We all need the true, the good, and the beautiful," she added. In her case, the true is the facts of her life, the good is the therapy and housing at Dorothy Day, and the beautiful is the art she needs to make sense of it all.
THEY'RE NOT INVISIBLE
I asked Mohrlang whether she thought this work was actually doing anything real for her students. "Many participants in my workshop approach the making of art fearfully, 'I can't draw,'" she wrote to me in an e-mail after some reflection. "But in order to make art, in order to make anything, you have to embrace the part of you that can do things. I don't think this power is something you can measure."
"They're people," said Suzanne Sullivan, director of advancement at Cascade Women's Program, talking about the practical good of the program. "If you know someone's story you can't hate them, and so this will help them tell their story in a way that others can relate to."
"It's always a good opportunity for any marginalized population to have a voice," said Kai Sanders, a caseworker at CWP who has been in the field for 26 years. "Lots of people think the ladies here are invisible, but they're not invisible."
When I asked if they'd welcome more involvement from other artistic institutions, Sullivan cut me off with a laugh before I finished the question: "Yes. Absolutely." Cascade gets tickets to the aquarium and the zoo, but you can only see a giraffe so many times. (Any of Seattle Symphony's partners also get a limited number of tickets to the symphony, but Sanders and Sullivan hadn't been alerted about this benefit prior to our meeting.)
"A lot of women in transition are so focused on having to meet deadlines with their paperwork [for housing], and when they finally have time to themselves, we encourage them to go out and have fun and see the sights, but they don't have the money," Sanders said.
Leslie Chihuly, board chair at the Seattle Symphony, had the best answer of all: "We can't fix things," she said, "but we can play a role in dignifying with music. The point is to raise the profile of those suffering from isolation and homelessness and bring some dignity and goodness into those lives. The way I look at it is that we own all of it. The symphony belongs to the community, and the social problems belong to the community. Someone can bring diapers, and someone else can bring lullabies and music. We need it all."
MEET THE ARTISTS
I ended up speaking with five of the participants in the Ives program. Each of their paths to reliance on services is unique, but the broad strokes are strikingly similar. They got sick, they didn't get the care they needed or couldn't pay for it, they had this one other fucking thing going on, and then the bottom dropped out. They were out of a home.
Finding adequate and appropriate housing takes time. Susan Temple, 62, a veteran and a witty, hilarious trans woman who's been in transitional housing for 10 months, said the housing search is a lot of hurry up and wait.
"It isn't like you fill out an application and walk in the door," she said. "You're lucky to get on a list [for temporary or permanent housing], and it might be two to five years until you get in. It also takes an enormous amount of time to do all the homework—is the facility going to meet my needs, am I going to be safe there, is it conducive to an LGBT environment, or is it a wet, drug-addict place where people are still using?"
She said that her engagement with art makes her feel more connected to the world and to herself. She loves symphonic music in particular because it keeps her calm and reminds her of the three years she spent learning the violin as a kid. The Ives project, she said, challenged her to be more rigorously introspective, and she welcomed the task of trying to transform her feelings into images.
Temple had previously worked in the entertainment industry for 22 years, working her way up from games to head safety and maintenance coordinator for a carnival. "The nuts and bolts of a concert, to me, are food," she said. "They feed me. The music is dessert. It's what makes the work worth it."
Not being able to see live shows because of her financial struggles particularly stings. "I feel like I can't go there because I can't afford it anymore, and so I don't belong," Temple said.
Stephanie Thomas, 61, echoed that feeling and enjoyed working on the Ives project for reasons similar to Temple's. Before she found Cascade, she was living out of three cars and a storage facility along with her daughter, six dogs, and a cat. A long, complicated illness led to her financial collapse.
"[The project let us] do something with our memories as opposed to just dwelling on self-help," Thomas said in her thick Boston accent. She mostly stays inside and looks after her terrier, Harley (who she, yes, absolutely dresses up in a little Harley-Davidson shirt), but would welcome the opportunity to attend dance performances and other events. She said she did ballet as a kid.
THE ARTS CAN AND SHOULD HAVE A ROLE IN COMBATING HOMELESSNESS
Stigma is a huge hurdle to overcome. If nothing else, increased visibility of the homeless in buildings associated with everyday culture and urban life helps to reduce that stigma. According to the people I spoke with, it also helps them feel like they belong.
Will arts orgs be able to draw a straight line from seeing a play or participating in a creative-writing workshop to stable employment and housing, health, and happiness? Will we ever be able to measure the real worth, the real "impact," of programs like Simple Gifts? Probably not in a way you could graph. Not soon, anyway.
But measuring the social good of arts programs in a quantitative way isn't the arts organization's job. Their job is to design the programs and make the art. The rest is up to all of us.