On a recent morning in a church basement where meals are served to hungry people, a man with an orange knit cap atop his head and his possessions in a rolling suitcase spills magic markers from a clear plastic bag onto the table in front of him. He grabs a yellow marker.
“The experience of homelessness is traumatic,” Bob Glennon told me earlier. “A lot of time, day-to-day life can feel very chaotic.”
Glennon is the clinical director here at Miriam’s Kitchen, a charity in Foggy Bottom that works to get people off the streets and into their own homes. When you don’t have a place to live, he said, each new day represents a series of problems to be solved.
“Where am I going to sleep tonight?” Glennon said. “I’ve got to go to this place to eat and then run across town to sign up to do laundry, then it takes two hours to get to the food pantry.”
The man in the cap smooths a piece of paper in front of him.
“One outlet of studio is to provide a sense of peace and calm. Folks can come in and hopefully relax and enjoy making art just for the sake of relaxation,” Glennon said.
“Studio” is what Miriam’s Kitchen calls a program that begins at 8:30 on Wednesday and Thursday mornings, right after the free breakfast that’s served every weekday in the large dining room in the basement of Western Presbyterian Church. Basic art supplies are available to anyone who wants them: crayons, markers, paper, coloring book pages.
A coloring book page is what the man in the orange cap has on the table in front of him. The page depicts a simple autumn still life: the outlines of various leaves. The man uncaps the yellow marker and starts to carefully fill in one leaf, then another, staying inside the lines.
Before the pandemic, Miriam’s Kitchen offered an assortment of extracurricular activities to the people it serves, including beading, poetry-writing and art therapy. The charity brought aboard its first trained art therapist in 2003, Glennon said. All of that was in addition to the organization’s core mission: offering what social workers call “case management,” the support with things like benefits, ID cards, housing and mental health treatment that can turn a life around.
But the coronavirus changed that. The extracurricular activities ended. For two years, the dining room was closed, and meals were distributed outside on a plaza in to-go containers. The kitchen and dining room reopened in May, after the pandemic had eased. The art studio began last month.
“We’re just kind of rolling it out slowly,” Glennon said. There isn’t yet a dedicated art therapist, but there is Antwanette Starks, a case manager who oversees the studio.
“A key ingredient to effective case management is building relationships,” Glennon said. “The art studio provides a great platform for that.”
The staff can get to know clients, and clients can get to know staff.
“We’re very respectful of how people want to receive services,” Glennon said. “If someone is not interested in speaking with a case manager, we respect that. If they just want to come in and eat, have a cup of coffee and be out of the weather, that is absolutely respected.”
Glennon continued: “Housing is always where we hope things end. We want to end someone’s homelessness, but, again, it’s a different path for everybody.”
One thing that can bring people back is the studio.
The man has finished coloring in the leaves with the yellow marker. They look plain, unadorned.
“We want to build a community here, where people feel a sense of belonging, where people want to come, where they feel safe,” Glennon said. “The art can also provide a wonderful sense of self-esteem.”
The man puts down the yellow marker and picks up an orange one. He uses it to add orange details to the edge of the leaf, shading them, crosshatching. Suddenly, the leaves gain depth. They come alive.
I ask the man if he’s up for a conversation with me. He says he’s not. He takes his paper in one hand and the handle of his rolling suitcase in the other and then walks back out to the streets.
Miriam’s Kitchen is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, our annual charity fund drive. Your donation can make a difference in the lives of struggling people.
To give online to Miriam’s Kitchen, visit posthelpinghand.com and click where it says “Donate.” To give by check, write Miriam’s Kitchen, Attn: Development, 2401 Virginia Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20037.