Creating Art in a Chaotic World: Healing Arts with Homeless Youth
As Healing Arts Program Manager for Safe Place for Youth (SPY), Sarah Boehmke has eyes everywhere—even as we converse. Whether it is locating hydrocortisone for a member’s surfing wound or brainstorming solutions to an interpersonal conflict in one of their programs, she works through each issue with calm, grounded energy.
She leads me through mural covered walls and an outside patio, checking in with everyone as we pass. Once at her art room, we see a huge, paint-splattered canvas, with art from members covering every inch of the walls. SPY services unhoused or at-risk youth ages 12-25. That age group, she explains, “is one of the most at risk and underserved groups of unhoused individuals.”
The Healing Arts program provides programming in visual arts, music, meditation, theater and yoga with the intention of improving social-emotional health. It also offers a gateway to SPY’s other services, such as education, therapy, and healthcare. Before taking the helm of the program, while a volunteer at SPY, Boehmke enrolled in the UCLArts & Healing Certificate Program in Social Emotional Arts (SEA). She reports that her transition from volunteer to program manager “happened rapidly,” and adds that “SEA was the launching pad that took me there.”
Boehmke, with training in fine arts from the University of Hartford, has a history of gravitating towards the intersection of arts and healing. Although a talented visual artist in her own right, she sees her primary artistic vision differently. “My art is very much creating the space for others to create art,” she explains, “that’s what’s important to me.” With a focus on media arts in college, she had her first experience with healing arts while doing a photo and video project for a community center after-school program. SEA brought her to a kind of renaissance of her original passion for the world of healing arts.
“Creating art next to someone is really a great way to start nonverbal communication,” Boehmke shares, with a wide smile. “A lot of times the conversation will begin without any direction and then, all of a sudden, you’re learning what this person might need because they’re telling you about their painting or chatting about what they did yesterday.” In addition to social-emotional programming, SPY offers drop-in medical services, case management, counseling, and employment support. “Connecting them to services like getting a birth certificate, ID, or medical attention becomes really easy,” she explains, “because whatever problem a member may mention could have a solution right down the hallway.”
Boehmke asserts that SEA was instrumental to her success at SPY. She specifically speaks to how learning redirection and facilitation techniques through the SEA curriculum has allowed her program to thrive in new ways.“The behavior management piece of SEA gave me these really amazing tools and guides the way that I communicate with people and respect them.” SPY works with a trauma-informed care model, a treatment framework which focuses on recognizing and responding to signs of trauma as part of the healing process. This is the same model that SEA covers in depth.
SEA behavior management techniques have also helped Boehmke witness and provide containers for some of the more difficult emotional experiences that are brought into SPY by members. “Because the life of an individual who is unhoused, at-risk, or going through some kind of mental or emotional struggle can be very chaotic,” she notes, “what comes out on the paper might be that chaos, but at least then you’re not holding that chaos within the body.” In this way, the art creation practices that Boehmke facilitates serve behavior management objectives, allowing for the release of complex emotions into a creative product.
Redirection and boundary skills learned in SEA have also helped Boehmke approach complex situations with members in a grounded way. “At SPY, we have a low-barrier structure, so people can come in and be intoxicated or going through any number of experiences.” Boehmke reflects, “I think that SEA’s behavior management toolkit really helps with trusting in that process, and not feeling like you have to change someone’s experience, but instead your role is to create a safe place for them to be in that experience.” In using the trauma-informed care model, Boehmke is able to meet her clients wherever they are when they walk in the room.
Boehmke values the SEA program not only for the practical tools learned, but also for the self-assuredness and motivation that enabled her to follow through with SPY programming, “With education comes wisdom and confidence, so I think that is what (SEA) gave me.” She notes that while she may have been able to find some of these tools in a book, there is no replacement for the experience, network, and support from SEA which made her feel prepared to do the work.
Even with support and knowledge gained from SEA, Boehmke shares in earnest candor that she still is still learning, and hopes that she always will be. “My biggest challenge is making sure I am on top of my self-care,” she shares. “Sometimes, Friday nights are a little bit draining because I get home and I’m relaxing and all of a sudden all the worry about different members comes in.” This is where self-care is key for those who work in social emotional arts, she explains, “It all comes back to this: when I’m at my best, I can be of best service.”
Part of that self-care, for Boehmke, is remembering the line between the work that she does and clinical therapy. Although she wants to be seen as a source of support for the members, she never wants to set up the expectation that they are engaging in a therapeutic relationship. While Boehmke’s relationships with SPY members never function in a strictly therapeutic capacity, a very different type of healing interaction can occur that is unique to social emotional arts programming. She and a member could be talking about a painting, and then maybe she’ll ask, “What do you think that means?” and suddenly the conversation shifts. “Oh!” Boehmke exclaims, “Now we’re actually talking about the inside of who you are. But it’s such a safe way to talk about it!” Boehmke is gleeful. “And I’m smiling at you, and you’re smiling at me, and we’re really connecting right now, but it never has to go to a place of diagnosis or clinical support.” Clearly, this is the magic of social emotional arts programming. Boehmke’s eyes light up as she summarizes the experience of those moments: “We are in a safe space, we’re talking about your painting,” she says, “and I’m really seeing you.”
The contributing staff writer for this piece is Olivia Buntaine.
Sarah Boehmke completed training in the UCLArts & Healing Certificate Program in Social Emotional Arts. She is a conceptual artist, graphic and web designer, and expressive arts facilitator in West Los Angeles. She has a current and ongoing project called “Doorways Art Show” which can be viewed, along with the rest of her work, at her website, www.sarahboehmke.com. Sarah also works as the Healing Arts Program Coordinator at Safe Place for Youth, a community center serving unhoused youth ages 12-25 through a continuum of care that includes street outreach, drop-in services, case management, health and wellness, and education and employment programs. Learn more about SPY’s programs at http://www.safeplaceforyouth.org/about.