Homelessness and mental-ill health: How can the creative arts help?

Homlessness and mental ill health project: photography

How can creativity have a significant positive impact on people dealing with homelessness and mental ill-health? How can it be used to empower lives?

World Homeless Day and World Mental Health Day fall on the same date – a coincidental but natural pairing. Mental ill-health is prevalent amongst homeless people, with St Mungo’s’ 2016 Stop the Scandal: An Investigation into Mental Health and Rough Sleeping report finding that four in 10 rough sleepers in England need mental health support.

At Create we use creativity and the arts to empower disadvantaged and vulnerable people. With support from Pret a Manger we run two programmes with homeless and formerly-homeless people, a key aim of which is to improve participants’ mental health and self-esteem. Speaking to participants from the two programmes demonstrates the link between mental ill health and homelessness and how creativity can help support people through both.

Participants at our homlessness and mental ill health project
Create participants making music

Deptford Reach is a drop in centre in South East London, attended by 70 – 100 people every day. The clients face many different challenges including homelessness, poverty, mental ill health and social isolation or exclusion. Create has been running its Speak With My Voice arts project there since 2003. 

Through Speak With My Voice Deptford Reach clients explore music, photography and poetry under the guidance of Create’s professional artists. The programme is designed to boost confidence, self-esteem, relationship-building and wellbeing.

Chris (not his real name), aged 43, has been a client at Deptford Reach since 2012:

“I first came across Deptford Reach when I had completed a prison sentence. After the security and cosiness of jail, the open market of society can be ruthless and unforgiving. Places like Deptford Reach help individuals restructure their lives and minds. Create’s programmes are pivotal in this restructuring.

“When you’re being creative you’re involved in life. You aren’t just a spectator, you aren’t just a number or a victim. It takes away the rough edges of life, makes everything less exacting and gives you more room to travel in your mind.

When you’re being creative you’re involved in life. You aren’t just a spectator, you aren’t just a number or a victim

“Expressing yourself through creativity is cathartic. The dark parts of you have a chance to be explored. The irony is that when you’re depressed it’s the time you least want to be creative, all you want to do is curl up in bed and do nothing. But a little encouragement always helps and that’s where Create comes in.

“Being encouraged to be creative has spurred on my initiative – I now run yoga classes and help manage the IT Room at Deptford Reach. I’m able to do that because of the confidence that the projects have given me. I’m more willing to volunteer, to put my two pence in, to give my ideas and jump into the mix. I keep telling myself I’ll perform at an open mic poetry night – I haven’t done it yet but I know my confidence is building – when I do it’ll be a massive achievement. I won’t be in the audience anymore; I’ll be part of the show.”

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Food for Thought is Create’s multi-artform programme with Pret’s Rising Stars programme, which helps people who have lived on the streets or have a criminal record to rebuild their confidence and get back into work. Paul (not his real name) is 22 and took part in a Food for Thought visual art project. He said creating collaboratively allowed the group to build self-esteem, communication skills and creativity:

“Art is something I wouldn’t have picked up had I not been given the direct opportunity. I’ve learned I can find new things that I enjoy and are interesting. There’s a self-belief thing that comes from being creative. When you’re sitting there and haven’t tried something before but they show you how to do it, then you do it yourself, and you make something, and it turns out pretty good.


“Art is something I wouldn’t have picked up had I not been given the direct opportunity.

“Before I was homeless I was living with my family but I wasn’t really doing much with my life. I was spending my whole life inside, taking drugs, making a little bit of money from working in computing. It wasn’t really an existence. I was depressed. My family weren’t happy with what I was doing so I had to leave and was homeless. I didn’t have any support, no money, no bank account.

“It’s so easy to say ‘no’ and that was a problem with me – I was saying ‘no’ too much and not getting out and doing anything. But now I’m coming to do these things, having a lot of fun, building relationships with people, it’s pretty huge. I try and say ‘yes’ to everything now because I’ve learned it will help me develop as a person and I missed out on a lot of development before. Now I’m 22, able to support myself and pay my rent and my bills.”

Both homelessness and mental ill health are increasing in the UK, and we must utilise all the tools available to support people in those circumstances. Chris and Paul’s stories show just what a positive impact creativity can make in the lives of people who are disadvantaged and vulnerable.

Read more about our projects here.