Luel Hayes uses his bare fingers to smooth out the mix of colors as he works on a painting that featured Earth and the sun as seen from outer space. Formerly homeless people took part in the art program offered at Church in Bethesda, part of an approach to help participants build social lives. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Everyone else had painted a butterfly. But Luel Hayes II wasn’t interested in butterflies.

Instead, he painted the blue and green Earth at the top of his canvas and a yellowish sun at the bottom, connecting the two with a curved ladder. Hanging from the ladder was a man and everywhere around him Hayes painted black. “Is the man climbing or falling?” someone asked. It depends on perspective, Hayes said, flipping the canvas upside down.

This is how Hayes, a 53-year-old, who until March 2015 had lived homeless in and around Bethesda for almost two decades, understands his life: going nowhere, trapped in darkness. But it’s not quite the full picture anymore.

Through Bethesda Cares, a local nonprofit serving those experiencing homelessness in Montgomery County, Hayes has permanent housing for the first time in his adult life. And now he’s participating in the nonprofit’s new socialization program, intended to get newly housed clients interacting and trying new things.

This week’s activity is art, and each of the five men is sitting quietly, head bowed over their canvases concentrating on each brush stroke. Sitting diagonally from Hayes is Clayton Barnett, who calls himself the Mayor of Potomac, and used to sit outside the Safeway on Old Georgetown Road crooning about peace and nonviolence. Next to him is Drew Baird, who grew up well-off in the Chevy Chase area but lost his way after his single-parent father died.

Each spent many years living in the shadows — sleeping in woods, stairwells, Metro stations — of one of the nation’s most affluent counties.

The “housing first” model that has granted these men shelter is a relatively new approach to addressing homelessness. The idea is that first providing homes to the chronically homeless will help stabilize them so their problems can be better treated, ultimately saving lives and reducing costs. But even this forward-thinking policy misses one key element of what people need to live anything resembling a good life: things to do.

The men in the Bethesda program had spent so many years just trying to survive, and now, with their basic necessities taken care of, they had all this free time and didn’t know how to fill it, said Mark Babiak, who works at  Bethesda Cares and conceived the socialization program. For this vulnerable population, boredom and isolation can be triggers for substance abuse relapses and mental illness. He wanted to stave that off by giving them something in their lives to look forward to.

Dennis Culhane, a professor at University of Pennsylvania with an expertise in homelessness and assisted housing policy, said social programs like Bethesda Cares are part of a larger effort recognizing that community integration is an important piece of improving the lives of people who have led challenging lives, whether because of a physical or mental illness, or circumstances like homelessness.

“It’s the ‘what’s next’ question,” Culhane said. “It takes a lot of effort to get someone into a unit. Once people are in housing, people want to live meaningful and fulfilling lives, they want to be busy and contributing to society, so a lot of the successful organizations have created volunteer opportunities, included them in paid work, and helped them form connections.”

Babiak wanted to expose the Bethesda Care clients to fun and uplifting experiences they may never have had. The program, called Let’s Go, has offered a creative writing seminar, a fishing trip, a woodworking class, a movie day (one client hadn’t been to a movie in 40 years, Babiak said) and bowling. Next month they’re going to a Nationals baseball game, which for many will be their first time in a professional ballpark.

“They have a fixed income, and they feel stuck in their apartments, so they don’t have access to these types of activities. It’s the only time they can do something like this,” he said. “Often the resources are only for those experiencing homelessness, I wanted to show them what other people do. I wanted to connect them with the community.”

So on this day they were learning to paint a butterfly. It was an apt metaphor for the men who are going through a major life transition and hoping for something beautiful on the other side.

Hayes, his long, curly ponytail sticking out from the back of his baseball cap, sat at the art table with his emotional support dog, a black Lab named Luna, resting at his feet. He’s blind in one eye and legally blind in the other, so he must lift the canvas close to his face to examine the details of his work. Since he was a young boy, the son of a black man and a white woman in the volatile 1960s, he said he has felt targeted by everyone. He still feels it. “Just Google me,” he said.

The search’s first few hits bring up articles about a Luel Hayes Jr., from Washington, D.C., who is currently serving 38 years for murder and child sexual assault. That is his half-brother. They share a father who decided to name both of his sons after himself. He blames the association with his half-brother for his past troubles with securing employment or an apartment and various run-ins with law enforcement.

The only time Hayes said he feels safe leaving his apartment, outside of when he has to for grocery shopping and doctors’ appointments, is for the Bethesda Cares activities.  “Usually I just hide in my house,” he said.


A painting by participant Clayton Barnett dries as others continue to work on their artwork. At right, T.C. Mason, a social worker and therapist, encourages the painters with clapping. Formerly homeless people attended the program, part of an effort by the nonprofit Bethesda Cares to help them have social lives.(Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

This was Baird’s first time coming to one of the recreational programs, but he said it won’t be his last. Before getting permanent housing, he had lived outside for five years, spending many nights sleeping in a tent in the woods. Now the 44-year-old said he’s trying to learn to relax and enjoy life again. His butterfly painting, soft strokes of rich jewel tones, inspired him to maybe take up painting as a pastime, he said.

Nearby, Barnett, 57, stood up from his artwork, a butterfly the colors of the Pan-African flag. On it he’d written, “Every Life Matters. God Loves you All,” at the bottom, and at the top of the canvas he had drawn a peace sign. Dapper in a fitted, striped button-down shirt — he spent most of his almost 30 years living homeless trying not to appear so — he offered to serenade the group.

“When I first met Bethesda Cares, I was hurting on the inside, and I needed love,” he told the group before he sang, “and from the moment I met them they’ve showed me nothing but love.”

The room quietly continued to work on their paintings as Barnett’s velvet voice filled the room with Stevie Wonder’s “These Three Words.”

Several years ago someone filmed Barnett in a neighborhood in Rockville singing. The video is somewhat shaky, but you can watch it here:

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