London, 26 May 2016
Macquarie London staff member Jamie Broom had never met a person who had experienced homelessness before being introduced to Sally, a participant at Streetwise Opera.
"The perception I had was totally wrong," says Broom, one of six Macquarie staff who volunteered as mentors to Streetwise participants who are, or have previously been, at risk of homelessness.
Following his first meeting with Streetwise (during which he found it "hard but good fun" to hold a note with the Streetwise choir), Broom was paired with Sally and they shared their experiences and knowledge over fortnightly catch-ups.
Staff who participate often have the most incredible experience – they come along as an individual but leave together with their mentee.
The ultimate goal for their partnership was to get Sally’s poetry published and raise awareness of mental health issues - an ambition she has held for a long time.
"At Macquarie the culture is very ambitious and fast-paced but it was clear I had to work with Sally to ensure that we were setting appropriate targets to progress her poetry project," Broom says.
"At first it was tough to get her to open up but we built up the trust and we came to realise we are actually on the same page and had many things in common. I ended up learning a lot from Sally about her struggles, poetry and life experiences."
For her part, Sally described Jamie as "very supportive and encouraging".
"He helped me to have a stronger belief in the value of what I was trying to achieve and also had ideas about how to go about it which I hadn't thought of," she says.
"He gave his time not just during the mentoring sessions but also independently to pursue and research potential avenues we'd identified."
Perceptions from both sides of the partnership faded away once their relationship started to develop.
"Everyone who participates in the mentoring program has their perceptions changed," Rachel Engel, from the Macquarie Group Foundation in London, says.
"There is a certain image of ‘bankers’ from the mentee’s side and for the mentors they have their own perceptions of homelessness and why that comes about – for both, these are not always positive images.
"Staff who participate often have the most incredible experience – they come along as an individual but leave together with their mentee."
Broom’s work with Sally resulted in Sally receiving funding for poetry master classes and the opportunity to have a pamphlet of her poetry printed by Macquarie.
"Jamie made me feel that he genuinely believed it was worthwhile, which gave me more confidence in the value of my own work," says Sally.
Streetwise Opera was established in 2002 by former homeless shelter support worker and opera critic Matt Peacock, offering free weekly singing workshops to people who have experienced homelessness. Fourteen years on Streetwise has reached 2,500 participants and group singing is still at its core.
Weekly music programs are held in homeless centres and arts and community venues across England. Participants sing and act, with specially trained professional singers teaching performance techniques.
The organisation also stages critically acclaimed opera productions where its homeless performers star alongside professionals. Productions have toured worldwide from New York to Beijing and at high-profile festivals.
Since 2007, Macquarie staff and the Macquarie Group Foundation have contributed £480,000 to Streetwise, as well as more than 1,000 volunteer hours and in-kind support worth in excess of £50,000.
In March 2016, Macquarie became the initial corporate funder of an international arts and homelessness movement, led by Streetwise Opera, with the vision to connect, strengthen and exchange knowledge with arts and homelessness projects around the world.
"The support Streetwise Opera has had from Macquarie is one of the most important factors in the charity’s success over the last decade," says Peacock.
"The fact that the support has continued uninterrupted for this long is profoundly important - it has enabled us to plan ahead, be ambitious and give a commitment to our performers whose lives can often be defined by instability."
Image caption: Streetwise Opera members rehearsing for an opera production.