Arts effort to aid homeless effort now targets reclamation of sites in second phase

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The staging of “In Our Backyard: A Community Conversation and Art Project about Homelessness” has taken its final bow right as the second part of the city’s taxpayer-funded arts project to address homelessness is preparing to take center stage.

The effort involved the production of “Room for Rent” at community gathering places around the city by the Rock Bottom Theater Group, a troupe of actors who either were formally homeless or supported efforts to aid those battling with it. The 15-minute allegorical play had the actors wearing animal masks as they are then stereotyped by other animals. then fueled an audience discussion about art, its role in raising the issues surrounding homelessness and a video presentation between someone who has stable living conditions and someone who does not.

The play, directed by Austin-based Roni Chelben, is part of the city’s $100,000 Artist in Residence program to address the homelessness crisis in the city through community discussions, performances and artistic endeavors. It was seen by more than 750 people, who then submitted surveys about homelessness that are being tallied now. Videos of the play will also be posted on the city’s website to reach people who were unable to attend a live production of the play. The effort comes at a time when the city is one year into its emergency declaration of homelessness that triggered millions of dollars of additional spending on human services, most notably the Stability Site on Puyallup Avenue that provides tents and counselors to homeless people as they transition to more stable housing situations.

The second project of the two-part arts effort is being spearheaded by Seattle-based artist Susan Robb. She will help develop solutions for creative placemaking and site reclamation of city-owned properties that are either unused or have become blights through neglect.

“When places get ignored, they … well, get ignored,” said the city’s Arts Administrator Amy McBride.

The top sites that are primed for reclamation ideas are the downtown “hill climbs” at 10th Street from Pacific Avenue to Commerce and at 12th Street between Commerce and Broadway. Ideas about programs, activities, landscaping, public art or rotating displays are being developed for possible implementation as early as this fall.

Other sites on the reclamation list include: the area around the 32nd Street Bridge between Wright and T Streets, the corner of South 13th and South Winnifred streets and the East 34th Street stairs, according to city reports. The idea is to use art and design changes to turn blighted locations into welcoming gathering spots for everyone in the community.

“(Homelessness) is such a huge issue,” McBride said. “The arts is an additional strategy. There isn’t a silver bullet.”

The city, after all, already funds the Stability Site, operates a mapping system for residents to report homelessness encampments to then monitor their cleanup and changed zoning rules to allow nonprofits to establish temporary homeless shelters.

“Arts is one strategy of many,” McBride said. “You can’t think of it in a vacuum.”

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