September 24, 2020 | By Jenelle Hallaert, MS, MA, P-LMHP
When I flew home to the Midwest for spring break in March 2020, I didn’t expect that flight to end up being a one way ticket. Little did I know I was going to spend the next four months in virtual classrooms finishing my art therapy master’s degree. To graduate during a global pandemic was certainly not my ideal situation. I grieved the loss of a traditional graduation. There would be no pomp and circumstance, parties, or final goodbyes full of physical embrace as I had imagined. Instead, a slew of video calls turned a tangible physical reality into an impalpable virtual reality. The disappointment invited me to find strength to adjust my negative attitude about the inconvenience of the pandemic. The virtual community, built through online courses during the spring and summer semesters, helped me to shift my focus from myself to others as each week professors and peers walked through the loss together with patience and grace for each other.
Serving people at my new art therapy job is another way I have adjusted my perspective during this season of anxiety and grief. Luckily, I had accepted a job as a full-time art therapist at a homeless shelter for men, women, and children in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, before the pandemic hit. What proved difficult was starting the new job as an essential worker. Before I graduated and could begin working full-time as an art therapist, the homeless shelter asked me to start as soon as possible. They had stopped allowing volunteers for safety reasons and needed as many staff members as they could get to help with day-to-day operations. I started working part-time in April as support staff for the women and children while finishing my graduate degree online. I humbly washed toilets, served food, played with children, and performed any other task that needed to be done in order to keep the shelter open for guests.
After a couple months, the shelter noticed a major need for mental health support among their guests. Anxiety and depression symptoms that tend to come with experiencing trauma such as homelessness were visibly exacerbated during the pandemic. As soon as I graduated, I started seeing clients to help reduce the uptick in panic attacks, aggression, and isolation behaviors occurring among the guests. A little known, disturbing statistic is that the average age of someone who is homeless is 9 years. Therefore, a focus on children and families is a must when working with those experiencing housing insecurity. Moreover, every person I work with has suffered not only from trauma but also from some form of grief or loss. During this pandemic, not only have depression, anxiety, and trauma symptoms increased, but so has bereavement. Some guests reported they felt yet another portion of their freedom taken from them due to the numerous restrictions caused by the pandemic, which was a reminder of how much they had already lost throughout their life.
“The Meadow.” 18×24. 2020. Acrylic on canvas.
This guest painted her safe place she would imagine when she was a child. (Shared with permission).
Due to the inherent technological barriers that come with housing insecurity, all sessions with the guests are in-person — putting both the guests and myself at constant risk of contracting COVID-19. Even with these risks, the mental health services provided to our guests are essential for their wellbeing. Overall, the shelter has continued care as usual for this population, providing emergency housing, continuing our substance use recovery program and transitional support through case management, and bolstering spiritual health – all while following the recommended CDC guidelines for COVID-19. It is with gratitude and a humble heart I get to help guests experiencing homelessness process their trauma, grief, and loss through art therapy. I have found over just a few months working with this population that many of them are incredibly artistic. They are a resilient and creative population. The opportunity to express themselves and honor their journeys through art therapy is something guests would have likely otherwise not been afforded. The best moments are when guests take pride in their artwork and almost always take it with them as an empowering memento to hang in their new home when they move from the shelter.
“Layers of Me.” 8×10”. 2020. Acrylic on canvas.
This guest painted the layers of her character traits she liked and disliked. (Shared with permission).
Jenelle Hallaert, MS, MA, P-LMHP
Jenelle is a Nebraska native. She works at a Gospel Rescue Mission serving men, women, and children experiencing homelessness as a full-time art therapist in her home state. When she isn’t working at the shelter she is advocating for art therapy regulation in Nebraska and making sweet treats for her online gourmet caramel shop.