Growing up in a small town in Kentucky, the narratives told to me about homelessness were often that the individuals were lazy, worthless drug addicts that chose and thus deserved the lives they led. My senior year of high school, I had a unique opportunity to travel to Louisville, KY weekly to spend time with homeless men and women at their campsites—becoming a regular guest in their space, their home. Through the relationships I built, I learned that my friends were not lazy or worthless. They are creative and resourceful people who often fall victim to the systematic and structural systems that neglect so many experiencing homelessness.
I moved to Nashville in 2010 to attend Belmont University. My Freshman year, I started going to Church Street Park across from the Downtown Public Library, sometimes passing out socks and coffee, but mostly just listening to their stories and experiences of living on the streets of Nashville. I learned the places they hated and the places most loved, like Room in the Inn. While I enjoyed getting to know my new friends and often tried to coordinate groups of students from Belmont to come with me to Church Street Park, I knew there must be a way to make a greater impact by sharing my experience on a deeper level with more people.
The Beginning of a Dream
My sophomore year at Belmont, I landed my dream work-study job at the Department of Service-Learning. My title was Diversity & Human Rights Campus Coordinator and my job description entailed developing and executing three community service projects a semester for Belmont students. I saw this as my opportunity to recreate the environment I had experienced in Kentucky in which students could genuinely get to know people experiencing homelessness. However, I had just moved to Nashville and had yet to develop any sort of network in the homeless community, so I knew simply taking students to homeless camps wasn’t feasible. I started to wonder what it would look like for Art to be the conduit in which community members could have an opportunity to sit down as equals with individuals experiencing homelessness – creative and talented human beings in the middle of a struggle, someone they can relate to. Through my work-study job in the Department of Service-Learning, I reached out and partnered with Room in the Inn to host our very first “Poverty & the Arts” event in November 2011 which invited Belmont students to sign up and participate in creating either visual art, music, or creative writing with the participants from Room in the Inn. Following our first event, I provided feedback forms and collected testimonies on how the experience impacted everyone. With an incredibly positive response, I continued to host “Poverty & the Arts” events through my Belmont work-study job partnering with Room in the Inn each semester until I graduated in spring 2014.
As graduation approached, I started to think more about the program I had designed at Belmont. I started to dream about its sustainability and about the impact it could have on the Nashville community. After meeting with several contacts from the nonprofit field for advice, one phrase that continued to stand out was “Don’t repeat services.” Nashville doesn’t need more nonprofits doing the exact same thing and competing for the same funding. This really resonated with me as I began to evaluate our program and shape its current services.
Forming the Artist Collective
Through the relationships formed with several homeless individuals during the events at Room in the Inn, I started to recognize the talent so many possessed but was overwhelmed with the lack of resources , skills, and understanding they had to do anything with it. I launched the Poverty & the Arts (POVA) Artist Collective in May 2014 with the goal of providing studio space, art supplies, developmental workshops, and a marketplace for artists overcoming homelessness to create and sell artwork as a way to earn income for themselves. Many individuals experiencing homelessness struggle with maintaining traditional 40-hour/week jobs due to criminal history, physical disability, and mental illness. By offering the artists in our Artist Collective program an opportunity to earn supplemental income through their creative skills, they’re granted greater autonomy in their day-to-day lives and can take control over basics like where they eat, how they get around, and who they spend time with.
Artists earn 60% of original artwork sales, and Poverty & the Arts reinvests the remaining 40% to provide art supplies, space, and exhibition opportunities to the artists. This social enterprise model was pivotal in allowing me to grow the organization from a college program, without the networks and connections of being from and working in Nashville.
Poverty & the Arts received 501c3 nonprofit status in July 2014. We had two artists in our Artist Collective our first year and have since served 20 artists total, 9 of which have transitioned into housing since joining our program. We secured a rental property in May 2015 and transformed a dilapidated house into a Studio and Gallery in the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood which has allowed us to participate in the neighborhood’s monthly art crawl and provide ongoing exhibition opportunities to our artists.