Seattle Symphony Initiative Tunes in to Homelessness Crisis

By Cristina Schreil

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.”

Laura Reynolds, director of education and community engagement at the symphony, likened Simple Gifts to the symphony using its megaphone to advocate in the community. She adds that work with partner organizations in recent years has equipped all parties to better grasp the issue.


“It also helps us as we embark on this work to have a greater understanding of the complexities of homelessness and who the individuals are that are impacted by homelessness, and so, in turn, that helps us become better advocates and better educators to our community,” Reynolds says. “I think what’s really exciting about this initiative is that it’s bringing the entire organization closer to the community to understand this real civic emergency in order to be better advocates.”

In elaborating on how the arts can directly alleviate stressors closely tied with homelessness, Reynolds spoke about the Lullaby Project, an annual workshop conducted with the family homeless shelter Mary’s Place. There, mothers work with Seattle Symphony teaching artists and musicians to create lullabies for their children. Reynolds says previous workshops have served as a safe space of respite and reflection.

“What’s been really incredible to see in this process is how the moms really open up and start using that moment as a way to process some of the trauma, the hurt, the things that they’ve experienced that they haven’t been able to express because they’ve been trying to find housing or trying to find a job,” Reynolds says.

Woods says “little personal impacts” have been at the heart of the work thus far. Woods also stressed that it’s up to the individuals who are served through Simple Gifts to decide what to take away from it, admitting not everyone may have a profound connection to the art.