Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Different Kind of "Youth" Homelessness

This post is the fourth in series of five in honor of National Homeless Youth Awareness Month. This week’s blogger is Christie Walser, the Executive Director of Project Create, an organization here in the District that exposes children and youth experiencing homelessness to the arts. It’s important to note, that the youth homelessness data we have been reporting on in our other blog posts does not include the population of young people that organizations like Project Create serves; specifically those children and youth who are still connected to their families but living in doubled up situations, in emergency shelters or in short term housing programs. The impact of unstable housing on this group of children and youth is, as you’ll hear from Ms. Walser, profound and we hope this piece helps to shed a light on this facet of homelessness here in the District. 

Art does not reproduce what we see; rather, it makes us see. (Paul Klee)

Current statistics on youth homelessness and poverty in Washington, D.C. are heartbreaking. In the District, nearly 30% of children live at or below the poverty line, a rate which is about 10% higher than the national child poverty rate. East of the Anacostia River, child (under age 18) poverty rates are even higher (40% in Ward 7 and nearly 50% in Ward 8). As poverty in D.C. increases, so does homelessness; the number of homeless families in the city rose 19% from 2011 to 2012. Tragically, there are nearly 2,000 children in homeless families in Washington, D.C. this year. [i]

We know that children and youth experience a wide array of problems due to their homelessness and poverty. Homeless children are three times more likely to exhibit emotional and behavioral problems than their housed counterparts. They are four times more likely to display delayed academic development. Poor children are also twice as likely to be suspended, expelled, or drop out of high school. [ii]

For nearly twenty years, Project Create has worked to counter the debilitating impact of homelessness and poverty on the lives of thousands of children and youth in Washington, D.C. In partnership with organizations that provide housing for homeless families (like SOME and Community of Hope), Project Create provides positive youth development, through arts education and enrichment, to at-risk, underserved District children. Our students are vulnerable kids who don't know where and when they'll be moving or who they'll encounter along the way -- who might help them, who might harm them.

In the face of the urgent needs of these children, how can art possibly make a difference? People often ask me—why arts education? I have seen, up close, the transformational power of art that occurs when our students put cameras to their eyes, hold drumsticks in their hands, or travel to see a masterpiece at the National Gallery—and then come home and paint what they saw. I witness the impact of art when our students sing and dance, sculpt clay for the first time, or display their artwork. Through creative expression, imagination, and the freedom of abstraction, these children come alive and their lit fuses cannot be extinguished. I’ve heard it said, and I believe, that “arts education is not a flower, but a wrench.” [iii]

Art makes it possible for children to recover from and be resilient in tough times. For Project Create students and their families, many of whom live in high-poverty neighborhoods East of the Anacostia River, it can be difficult for them to find, in their own world, the beauty and creative potential of life when they are so busy simply surviving. But, in the lives of our students, art lifts their spirits and grants them creative opportunities to transcend the limitations of their lives with hope for the future. Through art they learn to communicate more effectively and to act as their own advocates. And these critical skills stay with them and continue to enrich them for the rest of their lives.

A new study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that at-risk kids exposed to the arts had better academic outcomes, higher career goals, and greater civic engagement. Thus, they contribute more to their communities, achieve more themselves, and have higher aspirations and hope—all from engaging in art![iv]

Art is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. The act of artistic creation is transformative, and, for the large population of children in our city who are experiencing poverty and homelessness, the potential impact of this transformation is even more necessary and more urgent.

Christie Walser joined Project Create as Executive Director in January 2011. Her personal and professional experience in Washington, D.C. over the last two decades includes nonprofit administration, arts management, child advocacy, and community theater. Ms. Walser holds a Master of Public Administration degree, along with a Certificate in Nonprofit Management. She still can't draw.

[i] Statistics provided by Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, Inc. (updated October 2012).

[ii] “The Characteristics and Needs of Families Experiencing Homelessness,” National Center on Family Homelessness, December 2011.

[iii] “Re-Investing in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future through Creative Schools,” President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, May 2011.

[iv] “The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies,” National Endowment for the Arts, March 2012.

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