Homelessness, Healing, and the Arts

By S.E. Fleenor

The song “Macarena” starts and Luis Dominguez hops out of his chair, delighted that the song he requested and has been patiently waiting for has finally begun. He begins dancing, first sticking out one hand, then the other in the familiar line dance. His eyes light up as others begin dancing with him. For Dominguez, this rare opportunity to dance is therapeutic.  

Dominguez is homeless and receives services from St. Francis Center, a day shelter which has partnered with Wonderbound, a dance company, to provide a social dance group designed for the homeless once a week. Originally, Dominguez found the group because it was announced over the speaker at the day shelter. Now, however, he is a regular. For Dominguez, coming to Wonderbound’s group, Pari Passu, is not just something casual. “It’s important for me because it keeps me happy,” Dominguez said.

Members of the Wonderbound dance company gather with some of their homeless neighbors. Photo credit: Lena Prieto

Members of the Wonderbound dance company gather with some of their homeless neighbors. Photo credit: Lena Prieto

Pari Passu: Wonderbound and St. Francis Center

Pari Passu is the Latin phrase for “on equal footing,” a name that suggests equality between participants and facilitators, which Heather Sutton, dance movement therapist with Wonderbound, fosters during each session. One purpose of the program is to give participants ownership. “[To give] them a chance to be a leader, to make requests and to ask for specific songs,” said Sutton. “To take your mind off of things for even an hour a week has been the biggest impact so far.” Getting to “clown around” and dance together creates a sense of ease for participants, who have a unique opportunity to set down what weighs upon them, literally and figuratively, and “express [themselves] without having to get into deep emotional issues or deep emotional experiences.”

Wonderbound’s Pari Passu at St. Francis Center is open to anyone who is accessing the resources at that location. To receive support from St. Francis Center, one must complete a short form. 

Pari Passu2323 Curtis St. 
Thursdays 10 a.m. – 11 a.m., except the first Thursday of the month

The Art Collaborative: Denver Rescue Mission

Less than two blocks away, Denver Rescue Mission’s Lawrence Street Community Center provides daytime shelter and meals to homeless individuals and families. The Art Collaborative, a program administered by case manager Angie Tims, provides participants with an opportunity to make multimedia art while they are at the center. 

According to Tims, the program originated out of a sense that “a lot of times people have shut down the door of hope and have surrendered.” Her goal with the Art Collaborative is to provide a space where participants can be present. “They’re accepted, they can try being creative, and there’s no judgment or requirement as far as what they create,” said Tims. 

Ultimately, the purpose of the group is to provide an outlet for guests of the Denver Rescue Mission to turn to something creative and productive, rather than becoming destructive or isolating. Tims describes the hour and a half open studio as jovial and relaxing—many participants tell Tims that they haven’t laughed, felt at peace, or been without stress for longer than they can remember and that the Art Collaborative provides them the opportunity to enjoy themselves and create.

Mary Jane, a participant who recently joined the Art Collaborative, started coming to the Lawrence Street Community Center when her husband became abusive. Part of her hope in creating art is to get her voice out there. “Homelessness is not just people who are on drugs. It’s not just people who have bummed out. It’s people who have educations. It’s people who have had things happen to them, or [make a] choice, or it’s something that took them away from where they were.”

The most transformational aspect of the Art Collaborative for Mary Jane is not what others get from her art, but rather what happens to her when she creates. Her art “means nothing to anybody else, but it means a lot to me because of the fact that it’s my therapy. I was torn and tattered and now I’m growing into the person I want to be.” The streets can be dirty places that lack beauty and comfort. Mary Jane sees the Art Collaborative as a way to “come enjoy something beautiful.”

The Art Collaborative at Denver Rescue Mission’s Lawrence Street Community Center is open to all guests.  

Art Collaborative2222 Lawrence St.
Tuesdays 1 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.

The Card Project: The Gathering Place

Like the Art Collaborative, the Card Project started simply. A volunteer at The Gathering Place brought in card stock from her basement for participants to make art. The idea blossomed, and staff realized making cards could provide an avenue for participants to earn income. Each card sells for $3 and participants get to keep $2.50 from each sale. The rest of the money purchases supplies to keep the project going.

According to Steve Hartbauer, the art program manager at The Gathering Place, their art programs provide participants with a “way to think about different things and express themselves creatively.” Hartbauer believes that participants who have success in art “can step out into some of those other fields where [they’ve] been struggling” and find success. Art builds confidence, according to Hartbauer, and he has witnessed firsthand how the Card Project impacts participants: “Our members just blossom.”

“I love the Card Project—they gave me my artwork back,” said Nikki Feist, a participant of the Card Project at The Gathering Place. She initially came to The Gathering Place to receive meals when she was laid off at 56 years old. While she was there receiving other services, a friend convinced her to try the Card Project. “I hadn’t done any artwork in 20 or 25 years. I’d given up on it,” Feist shared. She now creates prolifically and enjoys making art not just for the Card Project, but also for other programs at The Gathering Place.

Shelley Lewis, another participant of the Card Project, first came to The Gathering Place to receive support when she had a housing issue. She spotted the Card Project in 2004 and has been coming ever since. Lewis enjoys making cards, particularly because she knows these cards will be given as gifts. She hopes that the person who receives her cards feels “this card was specially chosen for them.”

The Card Project at The Gathering Place is open to anyone utilizing the organization’s services. To receive services, you must be a woman, child, or trans individual and complete some paperwork.  

The Card Project1535 High St.
Tuesdays 9:30 a.m. – 10:30 a.m.,
Thursdays 9:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m., Fridays 1 p.m. – 3 p.m.

Gonzo at Reach Studio. Photo courtesy of RedLine

Gonzo at Reach Studio. Photo courtesy of RedLine

Reach Studio: RedLine

Before Gonzo found Reach Studio, a weekly open studio opportunity at RedLine, he lived a completely different life. “I used to be a terrible monster back in the days when I was on the street. I drank a lot. I fought a lot.” Today, he is confident that Reach Studio and his art have changed him. “I can proudly say that now, I wake up with ink and paint on my hands instead of someone else’s blood.”

Gonzo is one of the participants who has been attending Reach Studio the longest. His dedication and leadership have led RedLine to hire Gonzo to serve as the coordinator for this program. “I’m a product of the program. [I’m a] success story.” Gonzo doesn’t see this as his job, though. To him, Reach Studio is a way of life. What drives him is “connecting with the creative energy that’s in the air [at Reach Studio and connecting] with these people doing what they do.” Ultimately, Gonzo said, “The pride I feel in being part of it is probably the best reward.”

According to Mikal Muhammad, ArtsCorps education program coordinator at RedLine, “The whole goal is to put the power—the access, the ability, the sense of agency—into the artist’s hands.” Gonzo is a perfect example of this.

The program “really has blossomed best with someone who is a peer to the artist [leading the studio time],” said Robin Gallite, program director at RedLine. Gallite recognized that Gonzo has been instrumental in fostering a creative and inclusive environment. “It really feels like a family and a community.” 

Another participant, Carrol, shared that Reach Studio is “very accepting and tolerant. You can come even if you can’t paint.” She has found the environment to be so positive that she relies on her Reach Studio friends to help her develop a counter-narrative to the negative internal dialogue surrounding her art. Above that, though, Carrol said, “Mostly, I think of it as being fun.”

As the Reach Studio program has evolved over the last nine years, it has developed a partnership with Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. In fact, four Reach Studio artists are currently on full scholarship to study art at RMCAD. There are other opportunities available outside of RMCAD: Gonzo and Carrol, for example, have become core members. Once participants have attended regularly for a period of time and applied to become core members, they can have additional regular access to the RedLine studio and gallery. 

Reach Studio at RedLine is open to anyone interested in creating art. 

Reach Studio2350 Arapahoe St.
Tuesdays 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. (only 1st, 3rd, and 4th Tuesdays of each month) ■