Art helps homeless share, heal

George Griffin is 47 years old and loves glitter. He sprinkles red glitter over triangles of glue to create a "fortune wheel." Colorful feathers and pipe cleaner complete the whimsy.

"I was trying to make that like a fantasy," he said. "It's supposed to mean 'best of luck' and 'money' and 'sun.'"


By his own account, Griffin is not a fortunate person. Violence, incarceration and homelessness have been the mileposts of his life. But recently his luck changed. He has a home, and his sister helps him with his finances.

For therapists Pam Stein and Gwen Highto, who work with Griffin at Health Care for the Homeless in downtown Baltimore, the colorful fortune wheel is an apt metaphor: Griffin's luck has changed, but the odds are still greatly against him.


The therapists have encountered others like him at their twice-weekly art and therapy sessions, people who wander in, proclaim they can't draw and then produce works of beauty and insight. Art produced in the sessions, which have been held at the nonprofit medical and social services facility for more than a decade, hang in private homes, businesses and the American Visionary Art Museum.

From the outside, the class is casual and fun, an opportunity for homeless people to sit for an hour at a long table in an air-conditioned room amid piles of silky fabrics, boxes of crayons and jars of paint. But that's not all that's happening. As the group creates, anxieties ebb and personal histories that can help treatment and speed recovery emerge, the therapists said.

"We see people digging deep into their souls and drawing things they could never express with words," Stein said. "It's helpful to them, being able to process their emotions in this way. It's the start of healing."

Revealing stories

During a recent session, 52-year-old Amos Malone, who showed up at the facility at 111 Park Ave. at dawn to get in line for help with a bad back, drew a red wagon. When he finished, he talked about his past and a woman who gave him a heart-shaped charm.

"She was supposed to marry my brother," Malone said without elaborating. "I haven't had anybody for 13 years."

The hint of abandonment and perhaps a broken heart were not missed by Stein and Highto, who take mental notes during classes and later write reports that they share with other Health Care for the Homeless staff members for use in therapy sessions.

"In the process of creating art, different things come out of different people," said Highto, who was surprised recently when, after she asked participants to draw flags, they started talking about deceased parents and how much they missed them.


During another session at the center, Chris Thompson, a homeless man, cut a large heart out of a piece of blue cloth. On it, he sketched a picture of a woman with long, flowing hair. It turned out that Thompson has a wife whom he misses terribly. Inside the heart he writes: "Your eyes are one in a universe. Your hair is all like a mountain. There in my mind, we find each other again. I climb my mountain once again."

Group support

Discussions during art sessions are freewheeling. Highto and Stein don't force participants to talk, but if they do, the therapists offer feedback.

"That sounds like a lot of stress," Stein tells a woman named Wanda, who is trying to get help for her estranged husband who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. "Where are you getting your support?"

If someone is having a problem finding shelter, food or clothing, the women leave it up to other artists to serve as the experts. Sharing knowledge helps to reassure participants that they are not alone, Stein said. Sharing artistic materials such as fabric bits, paper and glue reinforces unity.

"People who are homeless are very isolated," Stein said. "They refer to themselves as loners. They don't get along with other people. They don't get a chance to share experiences with other people."


Rewarding work

For Stein and Highto, who gave a presentation on the program at a national conference in New Orleans recently, victories can be small but rewarding.

Last week, a man named Jeffrey pulled a chair up to the table after weeks of observing from the perimeter of the room.

"Finally, for me to get to write the note that said he came to the table, that was wonderful," Highto said. "For him, that was a major move.

"The whole point is to get them comfortable with expressing themselves and get them in for other services."