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Keeping Six is destigmatizing drug use and homelessness through arts-based initiatives

With a worsening homelessness crisis in Hamilton and the recent prohibition of encampments and vaccine passports further increasing barriers to access for Hamilton’s homeless population, services seeking to help and provide a voice to homeless people are needed more than ever. From cleaning encampments to creative writing, Keeping Six is working to change the perception of people with experiences of homelessness and drug use by destigmatizing their experiences through awareness and providing them with a platform.

Keeping Six is the result of the need for advocacy for people with lived and living experience of substance use. Upon seeing the lack of service for those groups in the community, Jody Ans, Denielle Delottinville, Robert Etherington and Iain James founded Keeping Six to defend the rights and dignity of people who use drugs.

“[We’re] changing the perception of people who use drugs as not having any direction or desire, not having focus, when that is only one aspect of their lived experience . . . part of our advocacy was about destigmatizing drug use, and also giving an opportunity for people to have a voice,” explained Kelly Wolf, Keeping Six’s Arts Coordinator and founder of Open Heart, a Hamilton-based theatre company.

“[We’re] changing the perception of people who use drugs as not having any direction or desire, not having focus, when that is only one aspect of their lived experience . . . part of our advocacy was about destigmatizing drug use, and also giving an opportunity for people to have a voice.”

Kelly Wolf, Keeping Six’s Arts Coordinator

The organization currently hosts a number of community outreach initiatives, with many of those rooted in harm reduction through the arts. Their current programs include dance classes, writing drop-ins and art supply grab-bags. By providing people with lived experience with homelessness and substance abuse an outlet for creative release, Keeping Six hopes to make Hamilton a better place for those who need it most.

Dance Classes

In collaboration between Keeping Six, the Hub and local artists, weekly dance classes were started as a community initiative to bring people together to stay active and release energy. Every Wednesday from 1-2 p.m. at the Hub on 78 Vine St. Keeping Six runs dance classes taught by Jammy Lo.

Lo is a dancer and activist working in the Hamilton area and is a core member of Keeping Six. She finds her inner Britney Spears on the dance floor week after week to mixes of high-octane songs, like a soldier called to battle. 

“I know a lot of people who are involved in fights, people getting robbed, so part of it is to stay active and the other part is to build stamina in case anybody gets into that type of situation. I want to provide an adequate outlet for all that pent up aggression and tension and convey a good message,” said Lo.

Meant as a space for community building and involvement, Lo hopes people leave the class with a positive attitude, confidence and the momentum for success.

“We wanted to emphasize that [the classes] are for all people, all bodies, all abilities. We also want all people to come out because part of our work is about people coming together . . . There’s an easygoing warm up and it’s always a lot of fun with great music, so that everybody can feel welcome. It’s not just for people who are marginalized; it’s for everyone,” said Wolf.

Writing Drop-In Sessions & Quarterly Zine

During the month of October, Keeping Six will be running writing sessions on Wednesdays from 2-4 p.m. at 140 King St. E. #10. The classes are run in collaboration with the Center for Community Engaged Narrative Arts at McMaster University and are open to anyone in the Hamilton community. Notebooks and pens will be available on site for those requiring them. 

“There will be a bit of freewriting at the beginning where you can share your writing and have a PhD student give you feedback on style and content if you want to improve your writing skills. There are people there to help you, but if you just want to freewrite and be with people, that’s okay too,” said Wolf.

Keeping Six also runs a quarterly Zine. Those attending writing workshops are encouraged to submit their work for publication, but submissions are open to anyone in the community, with an emphasis on those with lived experience of homelessness or substance use.

Produced in collaboration with The Muse, a medical humanities initiative at McMaster, the Zine was created as an opportunity for people to share their experiences through art. Including poems, artwork, short stories, biographies and more, the Zine attempts to create space for artistry and storytelling, providing an artistic outlet to those who need it.

Furthermore, through distribution in the community, the Zine fosters understanding and compassion for those with lived experiences.

Art Supply Grab-Bags

Currently limited to people who are unhoused, Keeping Six offers take-away bags of art supplies at Wesley Day Centre. Normally, the organization runs drop-in art sessions for the community, but has had to adapt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The grab-bags are their alternative in the interim, consisting of take-home art supplies that Hamiltonians can take and use from wherever they’d like.

“There are people who are fortunate, who can stay and make art in their home, but there are people out there who have no access to resources. And there’s not even anybody letting them know that it’s okay to make art. You feel like it’s all about survival, but what you want to do is create an environment where people feel valued, where they have a voice, where they can be heard,” said Wolf.

“There are people who are fortunate, who can stay and make art in their home, but there are people out there who have no access to resources. And there’s not even anybody letting them know that it’s okay to make art. You feel like it’s all about survival, but what you want to do is create an environment where people feel valued, where they have a voice, where they can be heard.”

Kelly Wolf, Keeping Six’s Arts Coordinator

The goal of the grab-bags is to provide people with a creative outlet – the ability to produce something of your own. Additionally, Keeping Six hopes to empower people with experiences of homelessness and substance abuse. The organization seeks to help those with experiences of homelessness and substance abuse feel that their voices deserve to be heard. 

Through engaging in the arts, Keeping Six hopes to provide Hamilton’s homeless population with purpose, drive and inspiration. 

“When people do art, they relax. Creative endeavours are harm reduction. It’s good for morale and mental health . . . we need an art outlet for people,” said Wolf.

For students looking to become involved in Keeping Six’s initiatives, their dance classes and writing workshops are available to all Hamilton community members. Keeping Six is also actively looking for volunteers.

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