Café Art: Fighting homelessness with paint and brush

SJS takes a look at a creative approach to tackling homelessness – and filling cafe walls

Paul Ryan, Café Art co-founder, at Brew Box Bubble Tea
Paul Ryan, Café Art co-founder, at Brew Box Bubble Tea

Among the frenetic traffic, the never-ending coming and going of people, the crowded and expensive places of Upper Street, there is a small and cosy café called the Chameleon Cafe

There is something different about this place; what is most striking is the artwork. Big oil canvases, delicate watercolours and crayon sketches create a gallery atmosphere.

In fact, The Chameleon is one of more than 20 independent businesses taking part in the Cafe Art network. Café Art is a project that aims to create opportunities by giving wall space to homeless people to showcase their artwork. Born in April 2012, the scheme makes good use of cafés’ walls, providing talented artists with multiple long-term venues.

Sonny Sabiha, owner of The Chameleon, sees Café Art as a “good cause. For the artists it’s a great motivation and a boost to get back into the shape of things,” he says. “I’ve had friends who had been homeless, and when it comes to these serious matters, everyone has a human side.” Unsurprisingly, Mr Sabiha’s café sold the most artworks in the project last year.

The idea came after co-founder Michael Wong, a long-time art group volunteer for a homeless charity, was in a café and saw that it had no art on the walls. Michael knew that the artists in his group created many artworks that were not being seen by anyone. He started to approach bar and café owners first, and then the artists.

Now Café Art has links with more than a dozen art groups run by homelessness organisations and even has its frames sponsored by Ikea. It also publishes a calendar that is sold on the streets in the same way as The Big Issue. This initiative helps homeless people not only through their art, but also by providing them with an opportunity to get back on their feet, all the while helping Café Art become a sustainable social enterprise.

Paul Ryan, one of the two Café Art creators, says that the main benefit of the project is to help people express themselves through their creativity. “If the art sells, one hundred percent of the money goes to the artist. The main goal is to help people connect with the wider community and the general public through art,” he says.

However, art and creative activities are often not seen as a priority for homeless people and, therefore, not much funding is invested for it to be developed as a form of therapy.

Chameleon Café in Cross Street, Angel
Chameleon Café in Cross Street, Angel

Art therapy and homelessness: why is it important?

homelessnessThere is a misconception in society that homeless people’s problems can be solved with shelter and food. Many organisations, such as Café Art and Unseen Tours, are working to show that other factors need to be considered too, such as social inclusion, mental health, self-esteem and the ability to plan for the future.

The reasons why creative activities have an essential role in tackling these issues are many. As highlighted in a report by homelessness charity Broadway [PDF], benefits include cathartic effects, improvement of movements, increased self-expression, as well as social skills and networks.

Simon Richardson, Honorary Secretary of the British Association of Art Therapists has been working with the homeless since 2008. Richardson says that with the increasing use of the “recovery model” by service providers, art therapy is likely to be introduced in more organisations, even though at the moment it is “under-utilised in the homeless sector”.

“As far as I know there is not a single full-time art therapy post in any of the charities working with homeless people,” he says. “The homeless sector has suffered cuts in funding over the past few years and resources have then tended to be focused on ‘practical’ support for clients.”

“Art is generally offered as an educational or social activity to homeless people,” he explains, “but the artwork in art therapy is understood as being invested with meaning for the person who made it, irrespective of the level of skill involved in its making or any aesthetic qualities. It is this difference in ethos, I believe, that has prevented art therapy from being more widely used in the homeless sector.”

Click on the image to see a larger size
Click on the image to see a larger size

Tony Sakim, young persons support officer for Spear, a homeless charity, says that the main way to fight homelessness is improving communication. “There is one problem in this country and no one wants to admit it: loneliness is a disease,” he says. “In our era you can reach someone anywhere in the world within one minute but we have lost the art of communication. If we start to teach to our young people again to communicate, or if we invest in activities that help homeless to express themselves, things will get better.”


There are many creative activities that help homeless people get back on their feet and reintegrate into society. Find out more with this video about Unseen Tours, a journey through London’s hidden places led by homeless guides.

Written by Martina Andretta

Leave your comment below!