How can classical music aid those experiencing homelessness? That’s a question leaders at the Seattle Symphony have asked since a city- and county-wide state of emergency concerning homelessness was declared last November. County sources found that more than 10,000 people had experienced homelessness on any given day in 2015.

“One of the things that I’ve always said right from the very beginning is that I think we have to be honest about what we can and cannot do. And what we cannot do is provide lodging, food, and clothing—the things that are most obviously necessary,” says Simon Woods, president and CEO of the Seattle Symphony. “But I think as we look at the journey people take, from getting into homelessness and then transitioning out of it, I think we can help attend to their spiritual and personal needs in a way that hopefully will be helpful to them as they recover their lives.”

On June 21, Woods and other symphony leaders unveiled Simple Gifts, a new initiative that aims to help individuals experiencing homelessness. There are three main branches: ongoing creative projects, teaching-artist residencies, and ticketing programs conducted with community partner organizations. Since 2013 the Seattle Symphony has worked with organizations that specifically serve those who are homeless; of the 60 nonprofits partnered with the symphony, 15 focus on homelessness. Speaking from the symphony’s home at Benaroya Hall, Woods described Simple Gifts as an expansion of these already established programs and stressed an institution-wide commitment.

In a phone interview following the announcement, Woods noted that many orchestras around the country commit to ameliorating issues close to home. He calls homelessness a “natural place” for the symphony to turn its attention, pressing upon the notion that a leading arts organization can make a “real contribution to healthy societies” in addition to emphasizing music.

“One of the things our partners have said is, ‘Help us raise awareness of what this issue really is and is not, help us get past the stereotypes, help us humanize it,’” Woods adds. “So the awareness-raising is an important part of helping society find a solution.”


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