Social isolation is a global epidemic. It was noted at the American Psychological Association conference in August 2017 that loneliness is a serious and growing concern: Loneliness Cited As a Public Health Threat / PsychologyToday.com. However, loneliness affects not just the elderly, but also the homeless and even returning veterans. The problem is so serious that the United Kingdom recently appointed a Minister of Loneliness, prompted in part by the release of the 2017 report, highlighted by the BBC, which points out that an estimated nine million people identify as "always lonely."
In the United States it was reported that 42.6 million people over the age of forty-five struggle with chronic loneliness, according to the AARP Loneliness Study released in 2010. To alleviate these problems, organizations are using an unexpected resource to connect people—the creative arts community.
The results are encouraging, particularly among those most vulnerable to social isolation—the homeless. In Australia, a study facilitated by the James Cook University Human Research Ethics Committee observed the well-being of those involved in the Four Arts Program. These participants identified as homeless and suffering from chronic mental health and addiction issues. Most had been involved in the nonprofit organization on a weekly basis for at least a year.
These findings were published in November 2011 in the Australian Occupational Therapy Journal. Researchers found:
“For many regular participants, the Art Program was a significant event in their week and provided both routine and continuity in their lives,” one that “stimulates an inherent pull towards occupational engagement with others, which may be neurological or social in origin.”
Writers Without Margins
In Massachusetts, such findings echo the experiences of Marine Corps veteran Mark N. Taylor, who has endured chronic homelessness in Boston, MA since 2013. He draws strength from Writers Without Margins, a nonprofit that supports under-served and homeless populations by helping them share their stories. Taylor says the organization is stabilizing and empowering.
Cheryl Buchanan, the co-founder of Writers Without Margins, describes their participants as having experienced “addiction, physical disability, illness, immigration, prison reentry, domestic violence, and global terrorism.”
Taylor discovered the nonprofit through word of mouth while living on the street. “I know where I’m going to be on Thursday for a workshop. I know that during the week I’m going to be writing. I feel safe to share things that are vulnerable,” he says.
A recent report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 554,000 people are living homeless in the U.S., a growing figure that includes a nine percent increase of individuals without shelters who are in need.
Through the workshop format, a nurturing system of trust is established between participants and facilitators as original work is created, shared and revised. Practical, collaborative skills are also reinforced, which Taylor believes promotes a sense of accomplishment and community support.
“Being in a workshop became important to me,” he says. “I have a confidence now that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t have my writing and someone to look at it and hear it. That can spill off into other things that may be more difficult.”
While Taylor’s immediate goal is securing permanent housing, he also plans to become an advocate for others, helping them rebuild their lives and identities.
“I’ve been to a lot of shelters and intake programs, and they usually want to know who you are and why you’re here,” Taylor says. “A lot of people have a problem writing that down. I once had an identity crisis. Now I know my voice. I write. It’s the only fight I have.”
Writers Without Margins holds public readings, produces a journal celebrating the work of its participants, and features information on its website for individuals and organizations to get involved. Creative arts communities bring people together in empowering and stimulating ways that foster greater compassion and awareness. In the fight against loneliness, society can only benefit from opportunities that offer life-saving connections.
Copyright 2018 Olivia Kate Cerrone
Olivia Kate Cerrone teaches at Suffolk University in Boston. She is the author of The Hunger Saint, (Bordighera Press), which was named one of the “Best Books of 2017” by The Brooklyn Rail. Her writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, Publishers Weekly, The Rumpus and other publications. She is a creative writing workshop facilitator for Writers Without Margins.