The James House Art Hive: Connecting and Belonging for Older Homeless Adults

May 05, 2022

By Anita Shepperd, BSW Practicum Student, University of Calgary    

Read about the history of Art Hives  


The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.

– Albert Einstein

Human minds are limitless concerning creative expression and using our imaginations. As Einstein observed, our imaginations encapsulate the magic behind creative thinking, providing the ability to enact change. With the increasing numbers of aging adults experiencing homelessness, rethinking, and evolving social perceptions are critical to change that promotes Aging in the Right Place (AIRP).

McMan’s James House    

For the past year I have worked as a Bachelor of Social Work practicum student on the University of Calgary Faculty of Social Work AIRP research study. I recently had the opportunity to tour The James House Art Hive. The James House, Calgary’s second promising practice for supportive housing research site, provide support and transitional housing for 27 individuals facing homelessness. Practicing from a “Housing First, Harm Reduction & Trauma Informed Practice Models of Care” (McMan, n.d.), James House recognizes the uniqueness and complexities of everyone’s circumstances. Using a “connection and belonging approach” helps residents to build social support networks and become engaged within the broader community. Designed to serve lower-complexity homeless adults, the program soon discovered that many of the referrals to the program was for older adults – those 55 plus. As such, the program adapted several practices and approaches to meet the unique needs of this demographic.

McMan offers a variety of programs and services to support families, caregivers, youth, adults, and communities. One of the community focused programs is an expressive art program located on the ground floor of James House. The Art Hive provides a community art space, that provides a safe and welcoming environment for the residents to explore creative expression through art projects. For more information about Art Hives in general please see the Blog by Mihaela Slabé.

The Art Hive’s Magic

During a virtual meeting with the Art Hive’s Facilitator, Wendy Lees, she shared her experiences and personal insights on how creativity offers a new opportunity to understanding AIRP. Prior to her work with the James House, Wendy operated an art program in Calgary’s East Village, supporting a large community of aging adults. She credits the Art Hive’s success, in part, to her ability to combine her skills in social work, community development, and art. The multiple lenses she employs uniquely shapes her practice with vulnerable communities, facilitating supportive, healthy relationships and developing strong networks that allow individuals to thrive. As a social worker focused on community-based art practice, Wendy was inspired by the success of Art Hive projects globally and was determined to create an Art Hive in Calgary. Increasing in popularity with residents over the past year, the Art Hive has offered 94, in person, two-hour sessions as well as art-outreach and individual art kits for James House tenants during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Art Hive, according to Wendy, promotes community and social network development; the lens of creativity and imagination creates connections and friendships through shared experiences— “It is where the magic happens.” Wendy has witnessed the benefits of using expressive art to facilitate healing through The Art Hive, as she proclaims, “it makes the impossible, possible.” Indeed, for many older adults experiencing homelessness, recapturing their creativity becomes part of their re-homing journey.

The Enchantment

The Art Hive supports residents to explore their hidden talents and revisit the magic of their imaginations. The interior walls of the Art Hive are alive with the residents’ creative designs, shelving is filled with all the supplies necessary for creative expression, and Wendy is inviting and welcoming. The James House Art Hive promotes autonomy by offering participant-drive programming and participation, flexible project ideas, and accommodates various mode of creative expression with the flexibility to attend weekly scheduled workshops or facilitate their own project. A key skill in facilitating community artmaking is separating it from perceptions of artistic talent. In this way “art” is equated with “being creative”, and community members who may feel apprehensive and have limited experience with art making and are welcomed into a community of “artists”.

Inclusion, equality, and community involvement are central to the Art Hive. Generated through community art walks, during which James House residents move through their neighbourhood and discuss public art, selling artwork at the West Hillhurst Community Association community market, building connecting with other artists and participating in the Repair Café, where they bringing new life to broken treasures.

Rethinking Homelessness

AIRP is designed to capture the unique housing and supportive needs of formerly homeless older adults. Thinking, creatively or “outside the box” captures multiple, innovative perspectives to understanding the complexities faced by aging adults experiencing homelessness. Unleashing new innovative ways to tackle health and socially issues can make AIRP for vulnerable communities both possible and sustainable. I look forward to engaging in the magic and wonder of the James House Art Hive.

To illustrate belongingness and connection members of the AIRP Calgary research Alison Grittner, Amber Dukart, Tye Strachan, and Anita Shepperd and Wendy Lees created a photocollage (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Photocollage Illustrating Connecting and Belonging for Older Homeless Adults


McMan Calgary. (n.d.). About the James House. Retrieved from