Women Without Walls: Healing Homeless Women through Art

Art is a powerful medium to showcase the stories of those who are usually invisible to society. Art is medicine. Art enables catharsis. There is no greater proof of this than the life of Ms. Geraldine Crimmins.

Ms. Crimmins is one of the 20 artists whose work was featured at the ‘Women Without Walls’ photography exhibition at the United Nations Office at Geneva. ‘Women Without Walls’ is an exhibition of photographs taken by women affected by homelessness from all over the world. Ms. Crimmins was the guest speaker at the launch of the ‘Women Without Walls’ photography exhibition – which I developed and organised through my professional capacity at the United Nations in association with Cafe Art UK.

“[Art] has helped me re-enter society and become a professional artist. I was able to train, mentor and give life skills in order to repair the damaging effects of living on the streets.” says Ms. Geraldine Crimmins, artist and representative of Cafe Art UK.

Cafe Art UK is a non-for-profit organisation based in London, U.K. that provides a space of the homeless to unleash their creativity and showcase and sell their artwork – with 80% of the proceeds going back to the artist.

There is no universal definition of the term ‘homelessness’. Generally, a homeless person is one who is without any permanent dwelling or those who are unable to acquire and maintain safe, regular and adequate housing – this includes those in a homeless shelter, a domestic violence shelter, those residing in cars or motels long-term, squatting, cardboard boxes or any other ad hoc housing situation. In 2015, it was estimated that approximately 1.5 billion people in the world lack access to adequate housing. Approximately half of them are women.

Ms. Crimmins’ story is like one of the many who experience homelessness today. “I have been living in London for the past 40 years. I was a successful businesswoman with a house, 2 businesses and I was a counsellor in private practice. [But] I have had a chequered life due to addiction and at 40 had a relapse and a breakdown and ended up on the streets, sleeping rough for 2 years”.

However, Ms. Crimmins states that her experiences with homelessness were more dire than that of her male counterparts. “As a rough sleeper, I’ve been sexually assaulted, bullied, mugged and robbed. I would stay awake most nights and sleep during the day as it was dangerous for me to sleep alone in central London”. Homeless women are among the most marginalised groups in our societies and their numbers are increasing. It is important to raise awareness of the problem and contribute to a better understanding of what is specific about the experience of homelessness among women and how best to respond to the needs of these women.

Ms. Crimmins says that a mugging in Central London changed her life. “I was hospitalised for 6 weeks”. This was a key factor in Ms. Crimmins’ ability to re-enter the system. “[Because] I was in a wheelchair for a while and I was given temporary housing for four years and then social housing”. This incident also led to her arrest which is an experience she is “thankful” for. Prison helped her detox and kick drugs out of her life once and for all”. Substance abuse is often a coping mechanism for the homeless and breaking the addiction is often the most difficult for those who have nothing left in their lives. It took being mugged and prison for “my head to clear and I [finally] decided to stay drug-free”.

Ms. Crimmins got involved in art and photography after winning a spot in the My London calendar photography contest which is run by Cafe Art UK. “I got involved in the My London Calendar and took this shot of an artist friend of mine called R.O.L. ‘Ray of Light'”.

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Having her photograph feature in the calendar and later exhibited at the United Nations was an “honour” for Geraldine. She says that “this picture means a lot to me because it was great for my confidence and helped me get back on my feet”.

Geraldine Crimmins is an inspiration – having turned her life around after facing the worst of circumstances. She continues to help others through her volunteer work at Crisis, a UK-based charity for the homeless as well as mentor at Cafe Art UK because she “wants to do something good with her life”.

“I believe volunteering and creativity is food for individuals who are damaged due to homelessness, addiction, mental health issues and economic hardships”.

More information on Geraldine Crimmins here and Cafe Art UK: here.
Image courtesy: Geraldine Crimmins and Cafe Art UK.

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