Located in a Northwest Washington church basement near the George Washington University, Miriam’s Kitchen organization, providing coffee, meals and guidance to Washington’s homeless population.
This illusion fades when the art cart comes out.
In the hands of homeless men and women, paints and craft supplies from the cart become powerful tools for self- discovery and healing. Art therapy at Miriam’s is a low-barrier program, requiring no name for identification for particibation. It is run as an open studio with all art supplies available to everyone.
“We wheel everything out on an art cart and give people the power of choice,” said Kate Baasch, senior art therapist and case manager at Miriam’s Kitchen. “The idea is that making art is therapeutic.”
Baasch said the program, which enables artists to paint, draw, sculpt and make jewelry among other things, is all about building relationships. The pro- gram practices the philosophy of choice and hospitality. Everyone comes voluntarily.
By using art as a therapy model, case managers hope participants “invite us into their experiences
through art,” Baasch said. “We get to know people through their art, and the new experience sets people up to make changes in their lives.”
“I think a lot of times in art, [people grow] from gaining confidence, insight and vision,” she continued. “This gives people another resource — an internal strength. It’s about building and accessing resiliency.”
The art therapy program stresses the idea that artists are invited to participate. Baasch believes that this idea creates a sense of community.
“The only reason I come is for the sense of family,” artist Paul Lee Taylor said. He has been coming to Miriam’s Kitchen since 1995 but got involved in the art therapy program only four years ago.
Taylor, who usually prefers to keep to himself, has benefited greatly from the program. “It’s a cold world out there, and when I come here there’s a lot of caring and attention,” he said. “Once I got comfortable and noticed how well [other artists] do what they do, I fed off their energy.”
Taylor began working with ink and pastels, but he quickly became bored and couldn’t focus on one project. It was then that he decided he wanted to start a collection. Taylor gets most of the ideas for his work from mythology. He takes an idea and puts a unique spin on it, like creating a painting of electric eel mermaids.
At first, I thought I was too cool for art,” he said. “Now I’m trying to get into cartoon animation.”
Taylor views the program as a training ground. “I’m learning from everyone around me, and I’m making good contacts,” he said. “I feel fortunate that I can come here and they have all these programs.” He said his work has gotten better since he began coming to art therapy, and he has gained the focus to complete his projects.
“I’ve seen it bring out the best in everyone,” Taylor said. “People come in angry. I’ve seen people come in, and then they see how [others] are doing, and then they mirror it.”
Another artist, Randy Pressley, has been coming to Miriam’s Kitchen on and off for 12 years. “When I first came, it was for the coffee,” he said. “Then when I found out about the art, I started coming every
Pressley mostly works with painting and has had his art on display at the George Washington University’s Marvin Center. He feels at home at Miriam’s Kitchen, where he considers himself “more
or less a security feature, like a bouncer.
“With the case managers, it’s like family,” he added.
Pressley said he rarely knows when he starts a painting what the end result will be. He prefers to go with the flow and see where his paintbrush takes him. “To me, it’s a stress reliever,” he said. “It helps clear my head. It feels good to be noticed for something. It’s very important to me because I’m pretty much homeless. Who knows what I’d be doing otherwise?”
Fellow painter Carl Foley considers the program very important as well, because otherwise he could not afford the hobby. He participates in painting and drawing, and loves all kinds of art, from realism to abstract. He studied art independently and said it is a constant learning process.
“I try to encourage anyone whose work I really like,” Foley said. “It’s good for their mental equilibrium. They paint away their problems.”
Foley, who has also had his work displayed at GWU, has a collection of 300 to 400 pieces of art.
“Art is my whole life,” he said. “It keeps your mind focused. You have to work. If you don’t have a
job, you have to do something.”
A resident jewelry expert who goes by “KC” is another artist who shows up every day without fail. He does bead-making and can complete two or three projects in one day.
“When people want to learn how to do beads, they send them to me,” KC said. “I love teaching other people.”
KC uses his bead-making skills to create necklaces, bracelets, anklets and toe rings. He has learned new techniques since he started participating in art therapy, such as creating holes in rocks and stones so that beads and string can be threaded through.
KC started coming years ago before moving to Houston and then returning. He began coming back to Miriam’s Kitchen in 2010.
“They say I’m a part of Miriam’s Kitchen now,” KC said with a smile. “[Bead-making] is just relaxing for me. I sit here, do my beads, listen to my music. I focus on my beads. I’m in my own world.”
Art therapy is part of Miriam’s Studio, one of Miriam’s Kitchen’s programs. The Studio is held twice a day. The art program serves 250 people per week, and the writing program serves 50 people per week.
Baasch said the case management program and the art therapy program go hand in hand. “We get to know people in studio and hear their needs,” she said. “Then we can make appropriate referrals.”
Maureen Burkes, a second-year case manager, serves as a facilitator once a week for the writing program. As a case manager, she help gets identification, birth certificates and social security. She also directs them to shelters and transportation and helps them obtain unemployment benefits. Everyone is handled on a case-by-case basis. As a writing facilitator, she works to get their minds going. During her shifts, Burkes provides participants with writing prompts for short stories, the goal being to “get what’s inside out.”
“They feel dignified as human beings,” she said. “They’re able to discuss things that are important to them.”
Burkes said participants learn to express themselves and usually come up with profound pieces. “They’re part of the Miriam’s Kitchen community,” she said. “We’re like ‘Cheers.’ Everyone knows your name.”
Burkes said the case managers have a ritual known as the heart pat, for “when our heart is overflowing and we see something incredible. We do the heart pat.”
Miriam’s Kitchen was a recipient of a Community Arts Grant in 2012 from the D.C. Commission on Arts
and Humanities. It was nominated for Mayor’s Art Awards for Innovation in the Arts in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
“We’re a community,” Baasch said. “We’re a place for people to be, even after they get housing.”
In addition to art therapy and creative writing workshops, Miriam’s Studio offers yoga, geography and knitting classes and a homeless advocacy group led by guests. It also offers a meal program, Miriam’s Café, and a case management program.
The meal program offers a home- made breakfast from 6:30 until 8 a.m. every weekday, as well as a dinner from 4:45 until 5:45 p.m. Miriam’s Café is open Wednesdays from noon until 2 p.m. for lunch, prizes and socializing with case managers.
The case management program offers services every weekday from 6:30 until 9:45 a.m., from 2:30 until 5:45 p.m. and Wednesdays from noon until 2 p.m. Case managers provide assistance with services relating to employment, identification, mental health survives, healthcare, substance abuse treatment, legal assistance, and daily needs such as showering, clothing and meals.
Miriam’s Kitchen primarily serves chronically homeless individuals, totaling more than 4,000 men
and women each year. It is open Monday to Friday from 6:30 until 9:45 a.m. and from 2:30 until 5:45 p.m. It is also open on Wednesdays from noon until 2 p.m.
For more information, visit Miriam’s Kitchen’s website at MiriamsKitchen.org or subscribe to the
group’s tweets at twitter.com/MiriamsKitchen.