Art – More Than Just A Creative Outlet for Marginalized Youth

When I ask you what you think a youth who is homeless needs the most, what do you think of?

Clothes, shelter, food, warmth? Maybe some medical attention, and a good talk?

What about art?

Sketch, an organization geared towards marginalized or homeless youth from ages 16 – 29 uses art as its tool of choice in its quest for their empowerment. Founded by Phyllis Novak (a local theatre actor with an appreciation for the power of art) 20 years ago in a downtown storefront, it has now bloomed into a plethora of studios and workshops of all kinds, located in an abandoned elementary school in the West end of Toronto.

They’ve got painting, music, dance, creative writing, culinary, and business workshops, a recording studio, loads of vending opportunities and art exhibits, and are even launching a culinary business venture employing some of their culinary workshop grads!

Art in and of itself is therapeutic. It has been shown to elevate serotonin levels, leading to a boost in self confidence and more impulse control, and provides an opportunity for self-expression, and a “tune out zone.”This is especially valuable for youth who might be dealing with abuse, addiction, a broken family, or a mental illness, and all in the context of poverty.

But that’s not all.

What really blew my mind (and one of the main reasons I chose to include this article in my Newscrawl) was that in addition to all of this great stuff, the people behind Sketch put a lot of thought into hammering out subtle ways to give the kids what they need the most. They offer healthy community meals (something very much needed for youth who skip meals often, and require healthy food for their developing minds and bodies). They also offer clean clothes, access to medical care (a big deal in America, folks), and “warmth and a sense of place.” My personal favourite though, lies in something I would never have thought of: lockers.


And what they have to say about the lockers is just amazing:

“The safety of a private space is something most of us don’t even think about. But homeless youth virtually always have to worry about their personal belongings being taken from them.

Lockers are one of the first stops for our clients as they come in for other services. Being able to relax without watching their things can be a huge relief…”

Sketch also refers more than 200 youth a year to local housing, career and mental health services.

Coming back to our earlier question of “why art?” The article answers this succinctly: “Art is what brings marginalized, hard-to-reach youth through the door in the first place.” None of this would’ve been possible had they not come first for an attractive workshop on painting, or the possibility to express themselves in some way that appeals to them.

In relation to our EDS220 course, this article made me think of the reading we were assigned, Poverty, Income Inequality, and Health in Canada, which talks about the direct effect that SES has on health and overall well being. Here’s a taste to illustrate the severity of this reality:

“Within Canada, Wilkins, Adams, and Brancker (1989) found individuals living within the poorest 20% of neighbourhoods to be more likely to die of just about every disease from which people can die of, than the more well-off. These included cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory diseases among others.


Yeah, it’s pretty sad. And it’s also preventable. In the readings, Health Canada outlined some causes of the above statistics:

  • income and social status
  • social support networks
  • education
  • employment and working conditions
  • physical and social environments
  • biology and genetic endowment
  • personal health practices and coping skills
  • healthy child development
  • health services

Some of these, of course, are impossible to alter (although who knows, maybe one day genetics will be a choice, too). However, many of them are not only alterable, but are currently being addressed by programs like Sketch.

My thoughts on this in relation to the world around us are twofold: the first is that the problem of youth homelessness and all that comes with it is something that sociologists and policy makers, politicians and Internet theorizers (like myself) have been mulling over and pumping millions of dollars into every year for a long time. Then, something as simple but effective as Sketch comes in, and blows everybody out of the water.

I’m not saying it’s our saving grace, or that Sketch will eliminate the poverty line…I’m just saying that they’re doing something right, and that it would benefit the rest of us if we paid attention.

Maybe the problem with the policy makers and the politicians and the post-doc graduate sociologists and the privileged bloggers typing away on their MacBooks and sipping luxury tea is exactly that. It’s that we’re too far away, too focused on why they don’t just get a job, get an education, and get out of the public-funding pool. Some of us are well-informed, but I think the problem lies in the fact that the majority of us may have never thought of something as simple but necessary as lockers.

In Equity and Diversity, we’re taught that understanding our population – the people we wish to interact with and serve – is as important as the service we wish to provide itself, whether that service is teaching, research, intervention, or volunteering at the local food bank.

If we can’t understand the ones we’re trying to serve, how effective will that service be?

That, my friends, is what makes Sketch truly remarkable. That is what I hope to emulate in all of my future projects: understanding.


“Our staff offer something else to homeless youth in NYC: warmth and a sense of belonging. We try to help them understand what they’re going through and find ways to support them without passing judgment.

But most of all we try to meet them where they’re at and always be there with compassion and empathy.”


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