If you’ve taken a walk around Todos Santos Plaza in downtown Concord since the pandemic started, you might have unknowingly passed a place known as the Art Table. On first glance it appears to be a group of unhoused individuals just sharing a meal.
But it is much more than that.
Ben Fliehmann, a former musician who recently decided to focus on writing poetry, said he got the idea for the table one night after he wrote a poem about various people he saw passing through the park in the late night and early morning hours. In the poem, “14 People Other Than Me,” Fliehmann writes, “I think we all came to be alone, although some were already home.”
A tall, bald man dressed in a black suit with a long beard, Fliehmann speaks with a warmth in his voice as he welcomes newcomers to the group. When I approached a few weeks ago, he seemed eager to share his story about him and how the Art Table came to be.
“I love talking to strangers, it’s one of my things,” said Fliehmann. “What an interesting and unique experience this is,” he said about being interviewed.
Fliehmann said he has lived in Concord his whole life, and after years unhoused, he finally took it upon himself over the pandemic to create an environment 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, creating a community with camaraderie.
Among those who dropped by the plaza were Derrick and his girlfriend, Joana, who sat on a red blanket under a tree in the grass area of the park. All of their belongings – sleeping bags, clothes and groceries – were piled on the far side of their blanket, and they invited me to sit.
Derrick told me he was searching for a job. At night, he said, he and Joana sleep behind the Veterans Hall, across the street from the park, and they come to the Art Table during the day.
They’re just two of the more than 580,000 people in America currently experiencing homelessness, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. But they happen to live in the state with the highest number of unhoused people. The Public Policy Institute of California reported that based on data from 2018, “California has the most homeless individuals of any state, with 130,000 people living in shelters or outdoors.”
A volunteer-based, one-night survey held by the City and Council of San Francisco taken every two years counted around 35,000 homeless individuals living in the Bay Area. And these days at 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 an outlet where everyone is welcome if they need a place to go.”
In this unique space, they focus on opening up people’s creativity, pushing inspiration, and celebrating freedom of expression. The Art Table is right next to the Todos Santos stage, a small area of concrete in the middle of the park where local shows take place, surrounded by restaurants and shaded by trees.
On a typical day, you can see various objects at the Art Table – from board games, cards, books and notepads, to syringes, pipes and alcohol. The table is a safe space for everyone, said Fliehmann, where no one is judged and all are welcomed with open arms.
“I wanted to create this thing where I can connect with other artists and can be around people [to] have difficult and important discussions,” he said.
As for the police, they don’t tend to bother the group much. “They just come by to make their presence known,” said Derrick, though sometimes they also take issue with people at the park who are “thinking out loud,” he added.
Although it’s not a traditional community, Ben, Derrick and the others at Todos Santos Plaza are convinced they’re forging an important space for people like them – those who are in search of others, and in search of discovering their own creativity.
As Derrick said, “Anybody is more than welcome.”