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Homeless artists redefine community

‘Spare any change?”A girl in a black hoodie walked through the crowd with a paper cup.The teens at Bringing Youth Toward…

‘Spare any change?”

A girl in a black hoodie walked through the crowd with a paper cup.

The teens at Bringing Youth Toward Equality’s annual youth conference shuffled uncomfortably.

“I’m the person you pass by everyday,” she said.

Someone snickered.

This wasn’t what youth bargained for when they sat down in the Yukon College gym on Friday night to watch Sketch.

The Toronto-based arts group was here to redefine homelessness.

But the teens weren’t engaged.

At least, not right away.

Members of Sketch were telling their stories and speaking in abstracts, while others painted on a large white backdrop.

It was artsy.

And it was awkward, said Sketch community artist Douglas Campbell, who was one of the performers.

“But only at the beginning.”

After the 45-minute show, the Sketch troupe had all the youth and chaperones form a giant circle and do some exercises to loosen up.

“We’re weird and proud of it,” said a performer, swinging her arms in the air and encouraging the young people to follow suit.

The youth began to join in.

And when Sketch laid a huge piece of white paper on the floor and asked the teens to create images that came to them during the show, a mural sprang to life.

“We asked them how they saw themselves and their thoughts on poverty,” said Campbell.

“And they created these intense images — it was stark stuff.”

The next day, Sketch held another conference workshop and saw youth go through a similar transformation.

“There were kids hanging back who were too ‘cool’ to get into it,” said Campbell.

“And girls who didn’t want to get paint on their clothes. But by the end they were completely covered in it.

“They were just drinking up the opportunity to do something creative.”

This is how Sketch operates.

“We believe young people have incredible ideas if you just make room for them,” said Sketch artistic director Phyllis Novak.

Novak, who has a background in theatre, started working with Toronto’s street youth almost 20 years ago.

The drop-in developed into a theatre program that allowed street teens to express themselves in a new way.

“It wasn’t about why you are here or how we can help,” said Novak.

“It was about getting back your voice by engaging creativity.”

Novak, with a number of the youth from the theatre program, eventually developed Sketch.

“It was a new way to engage people that made you feel less like a service recipient,” she said.

“We believe in community and equality.”

Now in its 10th year, Sketch moved from the small storefront where it started to a large warehouse in downtown Toronto five years ago.

The open studio space has a textile area with sewing machines, a woodshop, a recording studio and jam space, a movement and dance studio, a painting area and a community kitchen that dishes up a hot, healthy meal daily.

“It’s the most amazing place,” said Campbell, who started visiting Sketch four years ago when he was living on the street.

“I was homeless until March, and it varied from just stopping in for Sketch meals to really becoming involved in projects.”

Seven months ago, Campbell was hired as a Sketch community artist and now helps to plan and run workshops.

“Every young person has the potential to be a change agent,” said Novak.

“They come in the doors and have an opportunity to make things, and make the world better.”

On the street, days are spent trying to make money and get food, said Campbell.

“And you don’t have the opportunity to sit down and draw a little picture.”

“It seems crazy to ask people to stop and draw a little picture when they are just trying to survive,” added Novak.

“But sometimes you just have to stop and get back in touch with who you are.”

Most street services deal with a person’s physical needs, said Campbell.

“This is the only place that deals with the inner person.”

Sketch has been asked to travel all over the world to share its unique way of engaging youth, and has also made a documentary examining homelessness.

The film was largely funded by the city of Toronto, and Sketch ran up against some barriers during the editing.

“Throughout the film, I was shown as intelligent and creative, and at the end it showed me squeegeeing,” said Campbell.

“And the city wanted this taken out. They wanted a rags-to-riches story.”

The mayor eventually approved the scene, after Campbell explained he wanted to be represented fairly.

Homelessness is viewed a certain way, said Campbell.

Often described as a national crisis, or a devastating reality, homelessness is portrayed as a problem that needs fixing.

But we see the homeless as part of the community, and “a neighbourhood,” said Novak.

“We have to rebuild how we see community.”

“And we have to see each other for more,” added Campbell, who still identifies himself as a squeegee kid, as well as a musician, artist and Sketch employee.

After the BYTE conference, the Sketch gang hung out in the territory for a few days, sharing their documentary with the general public and with teens at the Blue Feather Youth Centre.