BOSTON: In an elegant church in one of Boston’s most chic shopping districts, homeless people from across the city gather once a week to express themselves in ways not possible when living on the streets. As winter approaches, attendance at Common Art increases, and as many as 100 homeless and low-income people paint, draw, knit, sew, make jewelry or engage in other crafts that allow them to boost their self-esteem and make a little cash.
Chris Haubrich started coming to Common Art about 10 years ago when he was homeless and still comes regularly even though he now has an apartment.
“This is the place that saved me,” Haubrich said, dabbing at a colorful painting of a parrot. “This is my safety net.”
“I was a kid who grew up being told I couldn’t do anything,” Haubrich said. “I had no patience, and this has brought out my patience, given me focus.”
Common Art was founded in 1996 when a homeless person told a local pastor that he wanted a place to be creative, said Amanda Grant-Rose, executive director of Common Cathedral, the nondenominational ministry that oversees the program.
“This is an opportunity to escape from their day,” she said. “This is an opportunity for self-expression, and it’s an opportunity for income.”
The art is sold on the sidewalk outside the church, and every Sunday some participants travel to Boston-area churches to sell their work. Pieces can go for a few dollars to $50 or more. Participants use the income for more art supplies, maybe a hot meal or even a night or two in a hotel when temperatures plummet, said Heidi Lee, the program’s artist-in-residence.
Common Art is now held every Wednesday, at Emmanuel Episcopal Church on swank Newbury Street – even when Wednesday falls on Christmas, or during the worst of winter storms. “That’s when people really need a place to go,” said Lee, whose job is to provide instruction, advice and encouragement.
Art is just one example of the creative outlets that shelters and homeless organizations across the country offer, said Megan Hustings, interim director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Several cities have street newspapers. Some shelters offer writing and poetry workshops, or even dance, aerobics and yoga classes.
“Homelessness is very difficult, it can be very debilitating, and when you’re going through stressful times ... having the opportunity to have some kind of normalized experience is very positive,” she said.
Haubrich typically creates mountain scenes using acrylic paints on canvas, but he has branched out recently to animals.
His mountain scenes are inspired by the late Bob Ross, the soft-spoken, bushy-haired art instructor on the PBS series “The Joy of Painting,” he said. The program has boosted his self-worth and taught him how to get along with others.
“I’ve learned how to respect one another, how to respect different cultures, and I’ve learned responsibility, leadership,” he said.
Artistic experience is not necessary. “I couldn’t even draw a stick figure when I started here,” said Jeff Shaw, who mixes joint compound with paint to create abstract works.
All are welcome, whether they choose to participate in artistic expression or not.
On a recent rainy Wednesday, one man sat quietly on the perimeter of the room absorbed in a book. Others spread out sleeping bags and blankets on the stage and fell asleep. Some people just hung out, chatting. Some just showed up for a cup of coffee and a hot meal.
And that’s OK.
“You don’t have to create,” Grant-Rose said. “It’s about community. We welcome everybody.”