Housing and community services provider, One Manchester, has partnered with leading regional theatre to empower residents to transform their lives and improve their health
As a social housing provider that owns and manages more than 12,000 homes in central and east Manchester, One Manchester has several tower blocks within their housing stock. First created as 'communities in the sky', the blocks were built to alleviate housing shortages in built-up areas.
However, after chatting with their residents, the landlord discovered some were suffering from social isolation - which was affecting their wellbeing.
Roy, a resident living in a high-rise block in Gorton, said: “No one seems to bother with you when you live in a tower block. I had virtually no network of friends, and I was becoming very introverted.”
Figures recently published by the Office for National Statistics found 5% of adults in the UK feel lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’. Social groups at risk of social exclusion are those who feel like they do not connect with their neighbourhoods. The Campaign to End Loneliness reports that socially isolated individuals are more prone to depression and low social interaction is likely to increase the risk of suicide in older age.
Finding a solution
One Manchester wanted to address this isolation and the health risks that come with it by creating a community-based project which would inspire residents, help develop communities within blocks and open their eyes to the arts.
In 2015 they joined forces with the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester to work on a three-year creative project, called On Top of The World. This involved partnering with over 200 residents living in four blocks across Manchester, who all felt they were at risk of loneliness and depression.
Amanda Dalton, the creative director at the Royal Exchange, and Tracie Daly, who led community programmes at the theatre, had already undertaken a small project to engage cultural ambassadors but noticed a lack of interest from male residents in the project. Amanda and Tracie approached the team at One Manchester to discuss how they could work together and improve the lives of single occupancy tenants, both male and female, who were suffering from a lack of community interaction.
Dave Power, group chief executive of One Manchester, said: “The wellbeing of our residents is hugely important to us and we wanted to do something impactful that would really change people’s lives.
“Together we organised cultural outings to galleries and local theatres to inspire residents. Supporting and facilitating access to these activities would help lonely residents to engage with the City and access cultural experiences they had previously felt excluded from.”
Some residents felt so inspired by this that they began volunteering as cultural ambassadors. Working with Tina Cribbin, a writer in residence at the Royal Exchange, they went on to create a play called ‘Can You Hear Me From Up Here?’ about the experience of high-rise living. The production set out to explore the experience of tower block tenants and the current attitudes towards people living in social housing. The play was performed by residents at the Royal Exchange, in July.
Tina, one of the participants in On Top of The World, who lives in Hulme, discusses how her confidence rose after taking part in the project: “The play gave me and others an opportunity to meet new people who also live in tower blocks across Hulme and Gorton.
“The production explores our own experiences, feelings and challenges over the years. There have been times when people in our community have felt lonely or forgotten but there is much more to those faces in the windows up high.
“It gave us an opportunity to speak to our landlord and local authorities directly in a creative and engaging way. Since joining the group, we are doing more activities collectively - days out, boat trips and watching performances at the Royal Exchange.
“This is about more than a trip to the theatre, though. One Manchester has given us a platform to make a difference, they’re listening to us and the community is changing for the better. Taking part in this project has been a brave step for most of the group, we had to learn to trust one another and keep the bigger picture in mind – this could hopefully change lives for years to come.”
The difference to residents’ lives
One Manchester says that their residents’ mental and physical health has improved throughout the creative process. After being involved in these kinds of organised community activities, 81% of residents in sheltered accommodation said they felt less socially isolated, 75% said that they felt their mental or physical health had improved as a result, and 70% stated that they had more contact with other people.
Some of the participants have also since started a new career and moved into paid employment, training and volunteering roles, both within the Royal Exchange Theatre and outside, helping to support their own communities.
After the project, Roy from Gorton found he had a whole network of people he’d connected with: He said: “Since On Top Of The World, I don’t feel isolated anymore. It’s helped me get to know people in Hulme, as well as Gorton. People stop me in the street as they’ve seen me on TV talking about the project, and I feel like I’m becoming more extroverted.”
Inga Hirst, who was involved with the creative direction of the initiative, said: “This project has not only helped individuals to increase confidence, combat loneliness and find a voice but its helped to build communities, increase social cohesion and improve vital communication.”
Tracie Daly, Royal Exchange community programme leader, was the lead practitioner on the project, said: “Over the years I’ve come to know the residents well and I’ve seen them become more confident, independent, active and watched friendships grow.
“Residents who wouldn’t have dreamt of getting up in front of others to act out a dramatic scene have thrilled and surprised me. I’ve watched people flourish because of this cultural engagement. What were once just housing blocks, now feel like communities that grow in confidence every day. One resident said to me – ‘I love being part of this. I feel like a somebody, not a nobody.’ That’s something I’ll never forget.”
If you’re struggling with loneliness, counselling may help. Visit Counselling Directory to find a qualified therapist near you.