Affirming Art with the Homeless

Art expresses our individuality.  It comes from within.   When we are free to make choices in colour and form we are saying something about who we are.  Revd. Rosheen Browning writes about the affirming place of art in relation to ‘Hands Up’ – an art exhibition created by the homeless. 

The Winter Shelter in Tunbridge Wells runs for a period of two months. For the second year running a small team have offered a chaplaincy service to the guests and volunteers and last year the team also supplied prayer resources.   These included Christian adult colouring books which proved to be quite popular and led to some open conversations.  On the back of this, Rev Miriam Barker suggested that we try running some Art afternoons this year and the library were kind enough to offer us the space to do this.

The guests came from many different backgrounds and needed the facilities of the Winter Shelter for different reasons. These afternoons in the library offered a place to be creative and expressive, and a safe space to share conversations. We wanted to offer the opportunity for them to produce whatever they wanted with the available materials, but also provided ideas and examples for those who didn’t know where to begin.

Following on loosely from an idea which I first used at the Children and Youth festival, I encouraged all who came to draw around their hands and use various pens and stampers to decorate around them. Their hands represented them as unique individuals with dignity, something many of them felt they lost in the process of becoming homeless.

The variety of results was exciting, with many of them being able to identify their gifts and skills and represent them in the colours they chose. Some then went on to produce beautiful abstract work or collages of people and things important to them. Some told the story of how they ended up there. It encouraged much laughter and good conversation ranging from time at school to deeper discussions about why Miriam and I wanted to spend our time with them.

The work was framed and displayed in St James’ Church, Tunbridge Wells but we now view two pieces of work with heavy hearts as the artist has since passed away in very sad circumstances. The hope is to exhibit this work in various locations and to offer the art in library again next year. We are very grateful to Tunbridge Wells library for accommodating us.


The cooperation between the library and Winter Shelter, and the art project in particular, has been very well received.  It is hoped that it will be repeated next year.  It has also been presented at Kent-wide libraries management meetings and held up as good practice.  This has led to Kent adopting a new approach towards rough sleepers.   They are seeking to link with Winter Shelters and rough sleeper workers in their areas to initiate similar projects and promote a positive welcome.  They hope to produce county-wide library cards for rough sleepers that will look identical to other cards but will not require an address to register.  They will have no fines attached and will allow extra computer on-line time, compared to other users.  West Sussex and Berkshire are also hoping to join Kent in this initiative and other counties may follow suit in the fullness of time. 

Congratulations to everyone involved in this ministry.