The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
Homeless and Artists Working Together  Streetwise Opera
Homeless and Artists Working Together  Streetwise Opera
Workshop for residents in Kotobuki-cho, Yokohama City (September 2, 2009)
Streetwise Opera workshop
Photo: Tadashi Okouchi
Can you give us an example from experiences in your creative work in the SWO program of how homeless people can make progress through encounters with the arts?
 I often give the example of one person we worked with who had been living on the streets for a long time. He had very serious mental health problems. He always went around in the same clothes and had all of his possessions were in his coat pockets. And he never took off that coat. But we were doing a [SWO] performance and I asked him to take off the coat, because I wanted to put a costume on him. I told him that I knew he didn’t ever do that but could he do it just this once. And he did take it off. When the people from the homeless center saw that, they couldn’t believe it. He had only taken off his jacket, which may not seem very important, but that was the biggest change that he had had in ten years, to feel that he didn’t needed that coat. So, sometimes it is very difficult to measure the value of what the arts can bring. You have to think in a more holistically about what it means for a person. It is not always just about a house.

At present, what projects are SWO cooperating with the government on?
I am having conversations with the Department of Communities Local Government (DCLG) through which the government has developed a strategy for homelessness, and there is now a big section about positive activity and SWO has a section in that and through that we have been able to educate and drive policy in the government for them to recognize the value of the arts.
 The government wants to reduce rough sleepers (people who sleep in the street) down to zero by 2012, which is the year of the London Olympics. If you are a cynic, you might think that this is just because the spotlight is going to be on England [with the Olympics] and you don’t want any poor people on the streets on the television [coverage]. This is a good aim but there are some aspects of it that I consider problematic. Because if you get these people off the streets, then the government will get a pat on the back and society will thing that the homeless problem has been cured. But that will not eliminate the problem of homelessness. In the UK there is a large population of the “hidden homeless” who are not sleeping on the streets but in temporary facilities or homes for the homeless. There are 800 times more of this type of homeless than those that are actually sleeping on the streets. These people are very isolated, and if you don’t solve this problem, you can’t say that the homeless problem has really been solved. I am not saying that the government’s policies are all bad. The government is clearly beginning to recognize the value of the activities of groups like SWO in the arts. And we are glad that this brings attention to SWO, because it helps us get funding and move forward. Because we can then say that we are working in line with government policy when we are doing fund raising.

What is the current annual budget of SWO and the breakdown of how it is used?
Our total annual budget for SWO is about £500,000 (approx. 820,000 USD). About 20% of that comes from the government funding from the Arts Council. Then about 60% comes from trusts and foundations, which is grants from private, not government sources. The rest comes from earned incomes from the centers and some corporate support. In all we have a diverse range of about 30 funding sources. About 90% of the production cost for our once-a-year performances comes from this funding. Last year we charged an entrance fee for our performance, but that still only amounted to about 10% of the actual production cost. And even that has to be recorded a surplus instead of profit and used for the next year’s performances, because SWO is a charity. We don’t have any core income at all. So, in some aspects we try to get funding from a diverse range of funders. It reduces risk. Even our largest grants are only for three years, so we can’t afford to become too dependent on a single funder. Because, if that grant ends, we can’t operate anymore. So, we have to avoid that kind of situation.

You also work with the Arts Council England. What kind of support do you get from them specifically?
The Arts Council England has been really supportive of us. But, we are not like many of the organizations they work with. The way the Council is structured in the last few years, they have several major programs; one of which has the Music department and the Visual Arts department, etc., and then they have another program is about social engagement through the arts. We are involved in these programs, so it is hard for people to work out who we should be talking to.
 Also there are regional centers, and since our office is in London we usually talk with the London but our biggest work is in Newcastle. That makes it difficult as well, because we are talking in London about things going on in Newcastle. So that makes communication complex. But each year we apply for funding and each year they are giving us more. So, they are very supportive of our work. They give several kinds of grants. One of them is project grants (Grants for the arts), which is what we are getting, and another is Regular funding for organizations, or RFOs, but we are not a part of that yet. Eventually, I am looking to become a RFO.

SWO does workshops in 11 homeless centers around the country, in Newcastle, London, Luton, Nottingham, Manchester, etc. What kind of partnership do you have with these centers?
We run our workshops in the centers, so we are a resident company in the center. In all the workshops that we run, we always insist that the center support people are on hand to look after the practical needs of the people we are just supplying the art. That is the relationship we have. We can’t work without the support workers there. So we choose centers that have that kind of support system to do our workshops. As for how we chose the centers we work at, there is no single reason the 11 centers we are presently working at were chosen. We don’t necessarily choose centers that have a high appreciation of the arts. Sometimes we have identified areas that we wanted to work in. There are some very deprived areas in the UK and it is often more interesting to work in those areas. It is more challenging.
 On the positive side we have a model that works and it has a good track record and quite a good reputation. We need more funding but, practically, on the ground, we could work in 50 centers next year. On the downside, I wonder if that would dilute the quality of what we do, the quality. Do I want to be in charge of a charity that becomes so large that I don’t now the quality of work that is going on in all the centers we are working with? We are going through a strategic review with consultants to trying to decide how to grow in the future.
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