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What If More Homeless Had Opportunities Like This?

By Dave Soref

“Everything you can imagine is real.” —Pablo Picasso

Painting is a universal language that gives people a voice they might not otherwise have. That is my first thought as I peruse image after striking image on the online gallery of Austin, Texas–based Art From the Streets.

My next thought is that every picture tells a story, and part of the story of each one of these paintings is that it was made by a homeless, or formerly homeless, resident of the Austin community.

Part of the story of each one of these paintings is that it was made by a homeless, or formerly homeless, resident of the Austin community.

To get a better sense of these individuals and the workshop that has been making their art possible for the last twenty-five years, I spoke with Art From the Street’s executive director, Kelley Worden, and asked her how something that started out as a couple of local volunteers making lunch for the homeless turned into a major annual art show at the Austin Convention Center.

Worden recounts that those original volunteers, though pleased to be providing food, wanted to do something more to help stimulate the creative energy of people who were often overlooked. “So,” she explains, “they brought in pencil and paper, and just started drawing. Soon enough others began showing up to draw. The volunteers saw what the participants were coming up with and said, ‘Holy moly! There are amazing artists living out here on the streets. We could potentially give them an avenue to explore their creativity and a safe place to do it.’”

Holy moly! There are amazing artists
living out here on the streets.

Thus, Art From the Streets was born. The workshop moved around various venues until finding a permanent home at the Trinity Center in downtown Austin, which already served the homeless in other capacities like obtaining housing, Social Security cards and mailboxes.


How the Program Works

Every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday a handful of volunteers arrives at 1:00 p.m. to set up the tables and paints. The class runs from 1:30 to 3:30. Then the volunteers clean up, and they’re done by 4:00.

“Now, when I say it’s a class, we’re not doing any art teaching,” Worden emphasizes. “The volunteers just facilitate. We offer paper, pens, pencils, paint, charcoal, and people come in and make art. But they always want our opinions on everything they do, which I think is fabulous.”

That’s the most impressive part to me. All this art was created during afternoon workshops, without any guidance or instruction, by people that otherwise struggle to find shelter.

I ask Worden what makes this outpouring of creativity possible.

“Some of our artists have a background in art and some do not,” she offers. “People in our class play off the creative dynamic of other artists, just like they do in all art communities.”

Makes sense to me.

The Financial Benefits

Of course what every artist wants, besides the opportunity to create, is to have his or her work generate public interest and maybe even sell. These are possibilities that Art From the Streets can provide.

Art From the Street’s showcase event is their annual Austin Convention Center show. “Thousands of pieces of art are displayed,” Worden effuses. “The art from our artists, about seventy-five in all, generates $90,000 to $120,000 every year at this event. Ninety-five percent of the sales price goes back to the artist, with the other five percent covering the mounting and framing that we do to enhance the visual appeal of the artwork.” That’s the kind of money that can make a real difference in someone’s life.

The chance to really become an artist versus being homeless is a wonderful thing for them.

In recent years, Art From the Streets has evolved into having multiple shows in more intimate venues and community centers, as well as a permanent display at an eclectic home décor store.

And then there is Art From the Street’s recently launched online gallery, which offers the chance for the artists to have their work seen outside of Austin for the first time, and to generate income year-round.

To be sure, the interactions are more than just financial. “Our artists are invited to all the events,” Worden affirms, “so they’re able to come and interact with the public and dispel the image of what being homeless looks like. When we have these shows, they dress up for the occasion. And I have to say, the chance to really become an artist versus being homeless is a wonderful thing for them.

“We have a variety of people,” Worden elaborates, “some of whom are truly living on the streets and some who have recently got into housing, but they’re all on point at the events. They’re there to show off what they do, and they want to change your thoughts on what homelessness looks like. They come dressed to impress and they really enjoy talking to the public.”

The Intangible Benefits

“We do have a lot of people that are still on the street,” Worden says, “but in the four years since I’ve been with the organization we have some who have been placed into permanent housing, and they were able to make that happen for themselves.

“We don’t deal directly with their cases,” Worden continues. “That’s not part of our program. But I really do think that coming into our classroom and being part of something that is positive, being around people that are positive, three times a week gives them the extra confidence they need to get through the process of getting into housing.”

Art From the Streets has been helping Austin’s homeless community realize its potential for over two decades. In recent years, they have expanded their outreach and created new opportunities for the world to see what’s brewing on the streets of Texas’s capital, including the online gallery and the new documentary film made in conjunction with the Austin Jewish Community Center that can be previewed here.

Find out more and peruse the art here