Creating Opportunities for Youth in Crisis Through Art Studio Programs

A young person stands in front of an art easel.

When the recession hit, it was hard for the residents of Sacramento County's Tubman House shelter, a program of Waking the Village that serves homeless youth who are parenting or pregnant, to find employment. The shelter's Executive Director Bridget Alexander had an unusual idea for solving the problem: create an art studio.

In 2009, Alexander’s vision became the "Art Beast Children’s Studio." The arts exploration space gives meaningful work to the young parents in the program and functions as an art studio for their children and the greater Sacramento community. “We wanted to tap into something joyful, to lift all of our spirits,” said Alexander.

[Read more about using creativity in family and youth work.]

Starting an art studio wasn’t easy. According to Alexander, the management at Waking the Village did not see how Art Beast tied into the homeless services they already provided. Eventually they realized the art studio would provide residents with jobs and additional funds that Waking the Village could use to support their other programs.

Since opening, Art Beast has employed 26 Tubman House clients in jobs ranging from art coach and teacher, camp leader, birthday party host, to front desk representative. The assistant director of the studio is a former client of the Tubman House. While jobs at Art Beast are not required of Tubman House residents, the flexible schedule of the studio is a benefit to many, particularly those who may be attending college or pursuing other goals.

The Art Beast is self-sustaining through studio memberships, classes, and events. Once studio expenses such as rent, staffing, and supplies are paid for, the rest of the profit goes toward Tubman House programs. Last year, Art Beast and its events raised approximately $65,000.

The success of Art Beast has led Waking the Village to start another art program in Sacramento, The Creation District, bringing together different populations of youth by using art as a medium to connect and learn. Art Beast connects young homeless parents through shared interests rather than just shared circumstances, and Creation District follows that example.

“People throughout our community feel good about supporting our programs because it contributes to a bigger social cause,” Alexander said. “We are creating ripple effects in our community from these art programs.”

Oasis Center's Underground Art Studio

A similar need for a creative space in Nashville helped spark the "Underground Art Studio," a private program held within the Oasis Center for young people in crisis. Unlike Art Beast, the Underground Art Studio is not open to the public. However, it serves as a location for peers within the Oasis program to collaborate on projects and contribute to a creative community.

While the Underground Art Studio does not offer jobs, it provides opportunities for homeless youth, primarily between the ages of 13 and 17, to take short workshops and participate in special projects involving other in-house programs. Program Coordinator Abby Whisenant said that having a physical space where their clients and staff can get messy and easily access art supplies helps them integrate art into other aspects of their program.

“My goal is for young people to not only appreciate art and creativity but also to understand how art can be used to benefit them. [It’s a great] way to express and share their story, cope with difficulties, and use art to make changes in their community,” Whisenant said.

The studio also offers many opportunities for youth to engage in long-term creative projects. Their Reaching Excellence As Leaders Program (REAL) teaches social entrepreneurship through art to groups of young men involved in the juvenile justice system. This year, the youth are designing and making t-shirts with the goal of selling them at their graduation in December.

Oasis is not classified solely as an arts organization, so local and state funding can be difficult to find. Currently, the program is sustained through local art supply donations, business and community partnerships, and a family foundation. Despite these challenges, Whisenant believes the program supports healing from trauma, establishes positive community building, and gives a voice to causes important to youth.

“Art can amplify outcomes,” Whisenant said. “I see an increase in engagement with youth in the art studio. They are invested in something and finding purpose through their creativity.”

[Learn more about using art with at-risk youth.]

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