How the Outcast Art Table created a new community for the outcasts in Concord – The Inquirer

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If you’ve taken a stroll around Todos Santos Plaza in downtown Concord since the pandemic began, you may have unknowingly passed by a place known as the Art Table. At first glance, it appears to be a group of people without shelter, sharing only one meal.

But it’s much more than that.

Ben Fliehmann, a former musician who recently decided to focus on writing poetry, said he came up with the idea for the table one night after writing a poem about various people he met in the walking through the park late at night and early in the morning. In the poem “14 People Other Than Me” Fliehmann writes: “I think we all came alone, although some were already home.”

Fliegemann, a tall, bald man in a black suit with a long beard, speaks warmly as he greets newcomers to the group. When I approached him a few weeks ago, he seemed eager to share his story and how the Art Table came to be.

“I love talking to strangers, that’s one of my things,” said Fliehmann. “What an interesting and unique experience this is,” he said of the interview.

Fliehmann said he’s lived in Concord all his life and after years without a place to stay, he’s finally taken it upon himself to create an environment during the pandemic where he and others could feel welcome. The art table became just that: a place for people to come together, enjoy each other’s company, share food, and play board games to create a community of camaraderie.

Among those stopping by the square were Derrick and his girlfriend Joana, sitting on a red blanket under a tree on the park’s lawn. All of their belongings – sleeping bags, clothes and food – were piled on the other side of their blanket and they invited me to sit down.

Derrick told me he was looking for a job. At night, he said, he and Joana sleep behind Veterans Hall, across from the park, and come to the Art Table during the day.

They are just two of more than 580,000 people in America currently affected by homelessness, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. But they happen to live in the state with the highest number of homeless people. The Public Policy Institute of California reported that based on 2018 data, “California has the most homelessness of any state, with 130,000 people living in shelters or outdoors.”

A biannual, volunteer-based, day-long survey conducted by the City and Council of San Francisco counted approximately 35,000 homeless people living in the Bay Area. And these days in the Plaza, Derrick said, “the table is growing.” He told me he decided to help Fliehmann start the Art Table because he, too, “wanted to create a place where everyone is welcome when he needs a place to go”.

In this unique space, they focus on opening people’s creativity, driving inspiration and celebrating freedom of expression. The Art Table is located right next to the Todos Santos stage, a small concrete area in the middle of the park that hosts local shows, surrounded by restaurants and shaded by trees.

On a typical day, you’ll see a variety of items at the art table – from board games, cards, books and notepads to syringes, whistles and alcohol. The table is a safe place for everyone, said Fliehmann, where nobody is judged and everyone is welcomed with open arms.

“I wanted to create this thing where I could connect with other artists and be with people [to] have difficult and important discussions,” he said.

As for the police, they don’t tend to bother the group much. “They just drop by to make their presence known,” Derrick said, although they sometimes have issues with people in the park who “think out loud,” he added.

While not a traditional community, Ben, Derrick and the others at Todos Santos Plaza believe they are creating an important space for people like them – those who are searching for others and searching for the discovery of their own Creativity.

As Derrick said, “Everyone is more than welcome.”

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