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Painting a brighter future for Darwin’s Indigenous community


Studio off the Street program participants (from left) Susie, Ross and Manuel.
By CLIFF WORTHING

Providing an art studio in the park, positive engagement and access to services have produced fantastic outcomes for Indigenous rough sleepers in Darwin – as well as art worthy of exhibition.


To date, the Salvos program ‘Studio off the Street’ in the Northern Territory capital has secured accommodation for 30 community members, helped 17 participants return to Country, and connected all program participants with health services.


“The purpose is to initially give participants a safe place to paint,” said Jamie-leigh Barnard, Doorways NT Regional Manager. “During the process, we build trust, help engagement with other support programs, and facilitate return to Country for those who want it.”


Studio off the Street began informally in 2019 when Ross, from remote west Arnhem Land, attended a Salvos hostel open day. Ross requested a safe space to paint, away from street noise. Ross became a regular, creating stories of Country on stray pieces of bark or canvas.


Ross grew up in Gunbalanya Country, 300km east of Darwin. When he was 25, he suffered a serious accident that required life-saving surgery in Darwin. For the first time, Ross left his ancestral lands without family support and with no comprehension of the English language. After leaving hospital, Ross ended up living rough on the streets of Darwin for a further 25 years.


Over time, Ross secured accommodation at the Army’s House 49 hostel and continued painting daily. Ross began encouraging family and friends to paint with him because he shared that The Salvation Army was a safe space to create art and spend time together.


About two years ago, program coordinators, Jamie-leigh and Dino dos Santos, Outreach Case Manager with the Street to Home program, secured funding for two years from a Salvation Army community grant. Funding allowed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement program to continue and expand.


Part of that expansion enabled the program to employ Sharon Butcher as a community engagement worker, an accomplished artist with lived experience of rough sleeping.


Sharon was born and bred in the remote community of Papunya. She is known for her bush banana Dreaming works, which are displayed in some Australian and overseas art galleries.


Sharon Butcher, the program’s community engagement worker.

Prior to her employment, Sharon was sleeping rough in Darwin. She heard about Studio off the Street from program participants and began attending regularly.

“Our team identified that Sharon took on a natural leadership role within the program, supporting program participants, organising program materials and conducting regular referrals to The Salvation Army,” Jamie-leigh said.


“The program keeps the mind busy, reduces alcohol consumption, and provides an opportunity to sit around and talk about our Dreaming stories,” Sharon said. “Community members trust me and trust that I can help them with referrals to The Salvation Army to get food and accommodation.”


About 30 people regularly participate in the program. Every Thursday, workers set up in a local park. They provide tables and chairs, canvas and paint, music, hot tea and sandwiches. Participants sit in their own family groups, sharing their techniques and stories with anyone willing to listen.


“Often tourists walk by, see the painters and come over to talk and learn about the rough sleeper community and stories of Country,” Jamie-leigh said. “We even have passers-by donate money on the spot to support what is happening.”


“Painting and art is a medicine – it keeps the mind busy” – Program participant Eunice

Another participant, ‘Cindy’, an elderly Indigenous lady, approached the workers for help with accommodation. They supported her in sustaining a tenancy, shopping and cooking, and stopping the misuse of alcohol.


Ross (back seat) gives the thumbs up as Darwin Salvos workers Dino and Jamie-leigh drive him back his Gunbalanya home and family where he was met by his niece.

One of the most heart-warming outcomes of Studio off the Street occurred recently when Jamie-leigh and Dino packed up Ross’ belongings and beloved paints and canvas to drive him the 300km back to Gunbalanya Country and reunite him with family and place.


“I can’t see myself doing any other work,” said Jamie-leigh. “Ever since I was young, I felt called to work the most vulnerable.”


Current funding for Studio off the Street ends this June, but Jamie-leigh and Dino are hopeful donors can appreciate the positive outcomes and support the current model going forward.

“It will continue in some form because it is so successful,” said Jamie-leigh. “We just hope to gain funding so participants can receive the full benefits.”

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