Invisibilia: For An Artist, A Room Of His Own Is A Lifesaver

Jul 1, 2016
Originally published on July 5, 2016 3:53 pm

Editors' note: It's Invisibilia bonus time! Sometimes we've got more wonderful stories than we can fit into the Invisibilia show and podcast. But we can't let them go. This story is being heard exclusively on NPR's Morning Edition.

These days you can find William Kitt in a small, bright solarium on the corner of 150th Street and Edgecombe Avenue in Manhattan, where he lives. Most hours on any day he sits here, sketching over a desk cluttered with colored pencils and pastels. What you could not know from looking at Kitt, a slender, laughing man who wears a beret and surrounds himself with drawings, is that he spent decades living on the streets.

Kitt says he spent 34 years of his life being homeless and maddened by drug-induced hallucinations. Now he lives in an apartment owned by a housing nonprofit called Broadway Housing Communities, which was founded in 1983 and owns seven buildings housing over 600 tenants.

Like most supportive housing projects, Broadway Housing Communities provides apartments and medical, psychiatric or other services to people who, like William Kitt, have physical or mental health problems or are low income. Kitt, now 65, has leased a room from this Broadway Housing property on Edgecombe Avenue for the past 13 years.

He's alive today in part because of this Harlem building. "He was so not well when he first arrived that had he not been in Broadway Housing, he would not have had long to live," says Russell Baptist, a social work manager who has worked with Kitt. "Maybe just of his own neglect."

Kitt says he became homeless right after he turned 18. He was living in New York City with his mother. "Yeah, I came home one day and the house was dark and everything was gone. The rent was paid for the end of that month. I didn't know how to pay no bills or nothing like that," he says. His mother had just left without a word. "She ain't sit down and talk to me. She didn't want to give me the option of saying, hey I'll go with y'all."

He moved into a New York City homeless shelter and made money from scheming. He stole cans out of recycling bins and forged identities to make cash. He says he made a lot of money this way. "But I was a drug addict. Heroin. Cocaine. Crack," he says. "All the money went into the habit."

That's when Kitt says he started having strange thoughts, sometimes even hallucinations. "You could walk by the park and spirits would come out and the devils start playing with your mind," he says.

It was like this until he was in his 50s, when he met a social worker who told him that she could help him find a place to live. She told him it would be subsidized and permanent, so he agreed to work with her. From others, he had heard that the city was giving preference to people with a mental illness. So he says he decided to do what had kept him alive for the last three decades — come up with a scheme that would ensure a place in one of the city's new supportive housing projects. "I had to act crazy," he says.

An unnecessary move, according to Ellen Baxter, the executive director and founder of Broadway Housing Communities. She says people don't have to have a mental disorder to live in the units, and many of the tenants have no mental health diagnoses.

Baptist says that Kitt really was very mentally unstable at the time, and Kitt himself admits that he wasn't the same person he is today. "Coming in off the street for 34 years, you a wild — a wild dude, you know what I mean? It took me about five years before I started letting [other people] in," he says.

After three decades of homelessness, Kitt was extremely socially withdrawn. "He would just stay in his apartment and not come out," Baptist says. "He was just so disorganized. That's how I'll put it. He was so disorganized he couldn't come upstairs to the social services. He needed a worker to take him, to transport him everywhere."

But Baptist says that after five years of effort by him and other social workers, Kitt started to change. "Just little by little, he started coming out," Baptist says. "And then he asked for paper. He said I want to draw. And we brought him some papers and charcoal and pencils, and he threw himself into that artwork. He became alive. He began to talk, to trust. It was amazing."

Services for most residents at Broadway Housing are paid for by the state and city of New York and private foundations. Housing is subsidized from the same sources, and many residents, like Kitt, pay their rent from some combination of welfare, Social Security or work income.

Supportive housing projects like Broadway that provide permanent housing and social support to people who were homeless, many of whom have neglected physical or mental health needs, are often more cost-effective than emergency shelter or medical services. Broadway Housing officials say that supportive housing for one person costs taxpayers $12,500 a year, compared with $25,000 for an emergency shelter cot; $60,000 for a prison cell; or $125,000 for a psychiatric hospital bed.

Kitt says the social services were incidental to his transformation. He says he had decided to extradite himself from his own wildness and "domesticate" himself, as he puts it. Now he says he's found his calling in art. He's working on creating four collections of street portraits. And Baptist says Kitt is an ambassador for the building, a model tenant.

Baptist says in a way it's true that Kitt pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. "He didn't have to comply. Nobody can tell you to stop using drugs. He did do it on his own." But there's another part of it. "Being stable at Broadway Housing and knowing he had a place to live," he says, "helped him become the man you see today."

Invisibilia co-host Lulu Miller contributed to this report. For more on experiments in community-based housing and support, see Lulu and Angus' story on Geel, Belgium, a town that has been taking in strangers with mental illness for centuries.


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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a story this morning from the team at Invisibilia about a man who was insane by his own definition. Although now, he no longer believes he is insane. He calls his story the greatest scheme of all. Here's NPR's Lulu Miller.

LULU MILLER, BYLINE: William Kitt has pretty much always been a schemer. It started for him when he was 11 years old with a candy machine.

WILLIAM KITT: Well, you could shake it and hit it and hump it the right way, and the money comes out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KITT: So I had around 20 of these machines that I would go - and every day, I would go around and shake it (laughter).

MILLER: Get the money.

KITT: Get the money, right (laughter)?

MILLER: His childhood was dotted with schemes like this.

KITT: (Laughter).

MILLER: And then...

KITT: As soon as I turned 18, my moms left.

MILLER: They were living in an apartment in New York City at that time.

KITT: She didn't even tell me the landlord name or a way to pay the bills. And then like that, I was homeless from then on.

MILLER: And so to get by, to get food and money...

KITT: It just was all about schemes.

MILLER: His schemes had a code of honor, by the way - never hurt or steal from an individual.

KITT: If you want to rob something, rob an institution, man (laughter) - you know what I mean? So...

MILLER: So he ripped off the city by illegally removing cans from recycling bins. And he says he ripped off the welfare office by using a bunch of fake identities to get extra welfare checks.

KITT: You know, I was a drug addict, you know, so the money went to the habit.

MILLER: And somewhere in there, the voices started.

KITT: The bad voices - and they say, take that, take that. You be start looking in the dark and trying to figure out what's going on back there?

MILLER: Yeah.

KITT: People in the alley running.

Take that, take that.

And your mind can create all type of scenes in your head, a rape scene, a murder scene, you know. Them voices was hell.

MILLER: And it went like this for over 30 years. William Kitt lived on the streets, the voices only getting worse.

KITT: Take that.

MILLER: Until one day...

KITT: That was Christmas, 2003.

MILLER: He went to church and said that sitting there under the arched wooden ceiling...

KITT: I look around the church and saw the faces of the congregations, from the kids on up to the adults. I wondered what they have in their life.

MILLER: Their peace, their calm, the sanity of living under a roof.

KITT: And if I want something, I'm going to get it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLER: And that's when he came up with the greatest scheme of all.

KITT: The great escape to get off the streets.

MILLER: See, he had recently learned that there were a bunch of new buildings in the city with shiny apartments available to people with a diagnosis of mental illness.

KITT: So (laughter) I had to act like I was crazy.

MILLER: So over the next few months, William Kitt, who had been hearing voices for decades, began pretending to be hearing voices in front of psychologists and caseworkers.

KITT: Take that, take that.

People in the alley running...

MILLER: And...

KITT: I was accepted right away.

MILLER: So is this - this is your place?

KITT: Yeah, this...

MILLER: All right.

He now lives in the Edgecombe, a stunning brick building in Harlem with a clay tile roof and a huge backyard. It's operated by Broadway Housing Communities, which provides supported housing for people with mental illness, funded in part by the city of New York. His apartment is spacious. He has high ceilings, great light and an easel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLER: He says that since moving in he has found his calling to be an artist. And now, he draws pretty much every day - these beautiful pastel portraits of people he meets on the street.

How many drawings do you think are in here?

KITT: About 400.

MILLER: Wow.

He says he's completely stopped taking drugs...

KITT: I just quit.

MILLER: ...and that no small part of his happiness, his pride is knowing that he did this. He schemed his way in.

Do you think like - so you said that you kind of faked being crazy. But do you think there was a part of you that actually was suffer - mentally troubled just from all the drugs? And like...

KITT: Well, it was a complete act.

MILLER: I mean, is that a dangerous thing for him to say?

This is Ellen Baxter, the executive director of Broadway Housing Communities, who says that his spot won't be compromised by saying this out loud because...

ELLEN BAXTER: One does not have to be mentally ill to move into that building.

MILLER: It's an integrated community - some mentally ill, some not. But then she explained something more meta.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLER: That it's hard to get a count on who is mentally ill in her buildings anyway because the longer people stay, the healthier they get.

BAXTER: Exactly.

MILLER: In fact, this is the effect the whole community is founded on, that sane surroundings create saner individuals.

BAXTER: It's simple. But once people have a place, a lot of other things fall together.

MILLER: And so when it comes to William Kitt's belief that he is pulling a fast one on the system by taking a spot for an insane person while secretly living as a sane man...

BAXTER: I think it's great.

MILLER: Before I left, I wanted to test this idea out on William Kitt. Did he fake his mental illness or could he have been healed by his surroundings? But before I could get to any of my questions, he wanted to tell me about the angel.

KITT: The angel said I cannot sell until I make the book.

MILLER: It turns out he still hears a voice, an angel, which tells him that before he can sell any of his artwork, he must first publish a book.

KITT: The angel explained everything to me.

MILLER: So I had to ask, how is that voice different than the voices you heard on the street?

KITT: Listen, the bad voices was - it was a sickness, you know. There was nothing nice about it. The good voice is God's voice and his angels.

MILLER: And, you know it - and that one just feels...

KITT: You feel it in your heart (laughter).

MILLER: Sanity, purpose, home - these things are hard to come by. But whatever you have to do to get them, when you do, you feel it in your heart. Lulu Miller, NPR News.

INSKEEP: To see William Kitt's artwork, go to our Shots blog, npr.org/shots. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.