It’s the hands that you notice first.
Inside the church basement, most grab a mug of hot coffee, which helps. Then the creative juice clicks in, and, chapped or not, the hands go to work, busily threading beads onto strands of nylon, or blending colors, or molding clay. The work takes place on canvas tablecloths stained with the rainbow swirls of a thousand similar days.
This is “Art Studio,” Miriam’s Kitchen’s daily two-hour refuge for Washington, D.C.’s homeless.
There’s room at our table, it says on the back of staff T-shirts.
Though it’s not always apparent, homelessness remains a serious problem in America.
Estimates vary because it’s tough to collect accurate data, but the government says nearly 1.6 million Americans experienced homelessness from October 2009 to September 2010.
Miriam’s Kitchen, just blocks from the White House and Kennedy Center, shows that the nation’s capital is no exception. Several other non-profits also serve the homeless in Washington.
Inside Miriam’s, closer in size to a small cafeteria than a kitchen, the mood is genial and content. Besides coffee, staff will serve a healthy meal later in the afternoon that, according to a chalkboard menu, includes soup and vegetables.
Most visitors – referred to as “guests”- seem to have forgotten that bitter cold lurks just outside a door that leads to a flight of steps. The steps rise to streets that these 50 or so people – plus 1,300 or so others on any given night in Washington – know all too well.
For now, snippets of serious and silly conversation bubble up from the art tables.
You got a voice like Barry White.
Whatever you got, Jesus can take it away just like that.
Sometimes I see things in my sleep.
We’re going to get married so I can get all your jewels.
The painting, beading and sculpting are far more than recreation time. The work is part of the guests’ “art therapy,” a burgeoning field where specialists use art to treat mental health disorders. Art therapists have also been on the scene in Newton, Conn. in the aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Back at Miriam’s, the walls are decorated with the work of guests from previous days. A line from one poem says: The light of a new day will always come.”
There is also an old-fashioned, sawed-off barber pole, bought for $39 on eBay and illuminated on days when the two security guards give haircuts.
Underlying all is Miriam’s belief that the solution for chronic homelessness “is permanent supportive housing, which couples permanent housing with supportive services that target the specific needs of an individual.”
As one guest told me, leaning in and speaking softly as though it were a secret, “Don’t get homeless. It’s not a nice thing. Don’t lose your job.”
If you’ve ever volunteered at a shelter, what preconceived notion did you have walking in that changed by the time you left?
Read more posts by Steve Piacente, a former print journalist and correspondent.