Wayne, nominated for Wanda’s Arts Awards and his guitar. Courtesy of Homes First.
When staff at the Savard’s homeless shelter first invited Danika Hussey to join the residents’ arts and crafts program, she resisted the idea. I don’t want to do art, she thought to herself. I have a hangover. My head is buzzing. I’m just waiting for the Beer Store to open.
Hussey was not an artist. But she had been a chef once, having worked at Moxie’s and Jack Astor’s and other major restaurant chains. She’d had a home. Then, two years ago, she was illegally evicted by her landlord. She got laid off. She began living in Toronto shelters and, within six months, had been attacked by another resident.
It took 29 stitches to close the knife wounds in her face. It took her broken hand seven months to mend. She had to learn to write again, to dress herself.
Confronted with physical pain and an emotional anguish eventually diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, Hussey turned to alcohol.
She moved into Savards, a 30-bed women’s shelter run by the Homes First housing organization. But she continued drinking heavily, and felt angry and frustrated.
Once the Savard’s staff coaxed Hussey into painting, though, she noticed a change.
“Lo and behold, three hours later, I didn’t have the shakes so much, my anxiety wasn’t as heightened.”
The more Hussey painted, the better she felt. She found she was going five hours without a drink, then 10, then a full day, and then two.
“Honestly, it was the art,” said Hussey. “It was that peace. I needed to… retrain myself to make myself come back into the world through my art.”
Homes First runs 16 shelters, group homes, and apartment buildings in Toronto, housing more than 500 adults, children, and seniors who have had trouble finding a stable place to live.
Hussey is one of seven members of the Homes First community nominated for the inaugural Wanda Arts Awards, honouring creative residents of the organization’s facilities.
The awards are named for the late Wanda Noonan, who lived with schizophrenia. Noonan spent a lifetime living in shelters, including seven years at Housing First’s Strachan House.
“Wanda was a really great artist, and that was one way that she coped,” said Misha Baudisch-McCabe, Communications and Projects Coordinator at Housing First.
Noonan had been separated from her family for several years but, with Housing First’s help, was able to reconnect with them shortly before her death in 2013.
It was Noonan’s family who put up the money for the awards. And Noonan’s niece will be part of the three-person judging panel, along with a Housing First staffer and a Housing First board member.
Four winners will be announced at Tie One On, a Homes First fundraising event the evening of May 13, held at the Mod Club on College Street. The nominees’ artwork and personal stories will be showcased.
Each winner of the Wanda Arts Awards will get a bursary worth $250, and work with frontline staff at Homes First to decide how to spend it.
The prize money could be put towards grocery store gift cards, for instance. Or it could be spent on art supplies.
“Some of our residents really want to [practice art more regularly] but don’t have the means,” Baudisch-McCabe said. “[Nominee] Tony, for example, has to paint on his walls because he doesn’t have money to buy canvases.”
Tony picked up painting a decade ago through an arts program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Like Noonan, Toney has lived with mental illness and been homeless. And, as Noonan did, he lives in Homes First’s Strachan House, where he has adorned his room with surrealistic landscapes in swirling colours.
One nominee draws, one makes pottery. Another, Wayne, was nominated because fellow residents at the Scarborough Shelter told staff how great his guitar playing is.
The nominees work in diverse mediums. They have very different backgrounds—some have been homeless for years, others came to Homes First when they lose a job or end a relationship. But each of them uses their art as an outlet.
“[Art] seems like a really good coping mechanism,” said Hussey. “It makes you feel like you’ve done something with the day.”
Hussey still lives in Savard’s, and guides other women there through an art program. She buys what supplies she can at a dollar store.
“[Engaging in art] feels like you’ve created a project. It’s nice to hear the other girls say that when they’re done,” she said.
Homes First is looking to expand the arts programs at its residences, and continue the Wanda Arts Awards in future years.
“We can use [the awards] for our residents,” said Baudisch-McCabe. “So they can use art to cope and heal as they go through their struggles.”