One Step Away: Helping homeless through art

2016 Steppy Award winner Michael O’Bryan, program manager at the Village of Arts and Humanities, empowers Philadelphia’s youth through art and creativity.

Each April, One Step Away readers honor Philadelphians working to end homelessness with the Steppy Awards. This year's 12 awardees come from diverse backgrounds and fields, showing the positive impact of caring citizens.

They prove there is no one way to end homelessness, but rather that it is a collaborative effort across sectors, people, and skills.

The following is a profile of Michael O’Bryan, honored in this year’s Steppy Awards for his work empowering Philadelphia’s youth through art and creativity.

“Narratives and stories are very central and important to who we are and how we maneuver life and make meaning,” says Michael O’Bryan, Program Manager at the Village of Arts and Humanities. “In the space of healing, art can help connect disparate memories and experiences, and provide a framework to reshape that narrative if need be.”

O’Bryan, a graduate of the University of the Arts, uses creativity as a tool of expression, empowerment, and healing for disenfranchised youth in Philadelphia. Since he was 22 years old, he has had the opportunity to work with youth experiencing homelessness in a variety of ways.

“I try to be anywhere that youth are experiencing this issue and help them to make connections to more adults that care about them, and connect them to programs that are of interest to them that can help them gain new skills and meet new people,” he says.

This has included being a lead artist in journey2home, a project through the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program that engaged more than 50 young participants to explore the various aspects of housing insecurity through art installations. It also includes working with POPPYN, a news show by and for teens, to produce a half-hour exploration of youth homelessness.

Currently, with the Village of Arts and Humanities, he is about to start the spring semester of a creative workshop for youth called Creative Impact Studios.

“The idea is we’re centered around advocacy, education, and enterprise,” says O’Bryan. “Looking at those three pillars, we explore how the creative economy can create impact. We hold classes on art forms such as music production and songwriting, and connect youth to real life clients who are looking for young perspectives.”

This year O’Bryan spoke at Philadelphia’s Homeless Memorial, which focused not only on the lives lost, but also on the city’s youth who experience homelessness in our midst and are at risk of being lost. He told the story of his mother, who was homeless as a young teen and at the age of 20 lived in emergency housing with her children.

“That narrative is close to me and close to my heart,” says O’Bryan, “something that I see play out so much in Philadelphia, this idea of youth homelessness and youth having children and experiencing homelessness.

It is more than just his connection to his mother that drives O’Bryan to do this work, however. He is quick to cite those who have supported and inspired him, namely Susan Brotherton at the Salvation Army Red Shield Family Residence and Dr. Sandy Bloom who practices trauma-informed care at the Sanctuary Institute.

“People want to experience joy, be connected, be heard, grow skills, and feel like they can make an impact in some way,” says O’Bryan. “If I can help in any way make an impact on the lives of others, I feel compelled to, not out of force, but out of gratitude for life and breath that I’m given.”

2016 Steppy Awardees include: Celena Morrison, Mazzoni Center; Deanna Lear, DBHIDS Journey of Hope Project; Francis Healy, Philadelphia Police Department; Iyesha Brown, Broad Street Ministry; Jeneen Whaley, People's Emergency Center; Karen Orrick, Project Home's Hub of Hope; Katharine Wenocur, Lutheran Settlement House; Lee Ann Draud, University City Hospitality Coalition; Michael O'Bryan, Village of Arts & Humanities; Nancy Bragin, Tuesday Afternoon Philly Outreach; Vince Lattanzio & Morgan Zalot, NBC10 Philadelphia.

Thank you to the passionate and dedicated awardees who work tirelessly to improve our community and make life a little easier for those in need.

Read the full stories in April's One Step Away paper, on the streets now.