Homelessness and the Arts: A Story about an American Woman

By Adam Kampe

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African-American woman sitting in studio before mic, waving hat.

Patty Smith during the taping of her podcast. Photos by Adam Kampe

PREFACE: In light of Martin Luther King Day (1/16), which is celebrated as a day of service, we’d like to turn our attention to the importance of homelessness, service, and the arts. What follows is a reflection by NEA Public Affairs staffer and Street Sense volunteer, Adam Kampe.

When I first met Patty Smith, she asked me if she could have the shirt on my back. Literally. I awkwardly laughed, but she wasn’t joking. I was leaving the Church of the Epiphany, which houses the offices of Street Sense. It’s here where they publish a weekly newspaper written and sold primarily by homeless or formerly homeless individuals. It's also where they run a slate of innovative, participatory art classes. Patty was entering the weekly theater workshop. I tried to change the subject, but the conversation kept returning to my plain white tee. Then, it was my hat. Can I have your hat? Do you have another hat I can have? I like hats. Patty is nothing if not persistent and I wasn’t quite sure how to handle the situation. Eventually, after humming some bars, Patty broke into song and my heart skipped a beat. The music flowed out of her mouth, bitter and sweet—a smoky approximation of Nina Simone. This woman with wild, dark purple hair and painted-on eyebrows, this woman I knew nothing about and who, I admit, made me a little nervous, transformed herself into a nightclub chanteuse under the hot city sun. For a moment, we weren’t on a sidewalk outside a church in Washington, DC. For a moment, the wet air, thick with humidity, lifted. I asked if she’d be up for an audio interview to talk about her life for the podcast series I produce for Street Sense, Sounds from the Street. She said yes. Patty had a story to tell.

Born in Mississippi and raised in Pennsylvania, Patty Smith has lived a rich life. A mother, a veteran, a cancer survivor, a songstress. “I love all kinds of music,” she told me. David Bowie. Led Zeppelin. The Beach Boys. A favorite song du jour is “American Woman” by the Guess Who. A couple years ago, she explained, “I painted a t-shirt red, white, and blue and fashioned myself as the American Woman. And I been singing ‘American Woman’ ever since that day.”

I don't need your war machines
I don't need your ghetto scenes
Colored lights can hypnotize
Sparkle someone else's eyes
Now woman, get away from me
American woman, let me be…

I learned that Patty relies on music to get by, especially when her heart aches—a feeling she knows well. She had a baby when she was young, and the father of the baby died. Soon after, she joined the Army Reserves in the Allegheny Mountains. Later, she relocated to Washington, DC, and served in the MP Unit of the National Guard. But she got cancer and was released from the service with an honorable discharge. In recovery, Patty fell behind on her rent. Around the same time, her mom got ill, became paralyzed, and lost her property. She had a couple of troubled relationships and she battled a drinking problem. Patty moved between Pennsylvania and DC, bouncing from house to house and shelter to shelter. Next thing you know, Patty was a resident at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, trying to rebuild the stable life she once knew. She temped, she started a small typing service, she started selling Street Sense. Like many homeless folks, she hustled, but all the hustle and goodwill in the world cannot fully restore a body ravaged by poor physical and mental health.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “564,708 people were homeless on a given night in the United States in January 2015. About eight percent of homeless people, or 47,725, are veterans.” I promised myself not to unspool a list of statistics because let’s be honest, while stats matter, they’re often overwhelming and it’s next to impossible to see the individual in the amorphous whole. In Annie Dillard’s astounding book, For the Time Being, she wrote, “We view all but those few people closest to us as clouds, waves, grains of sand—common, abundant, indistinguishable.” My hope is that through these podcasts, listeners will realize that people they pass on the streets are not just invisible, shapeless numbers. They are like Patty Smith: a human being with needs and wants. She is bigger, much bigger, than her history of homelessness. She is a kind, talented woman who loves art.

Through her engagement with various media workshops at Street Sense, Patty met Julie Turner, the social worker Street Sense partners with to help vendors navigate social services and affordable housing. Miss Julie, as she fondly calls her, helped Patty secure housing. In fact, she recently celebrated her two-year anniversary of being housed. Brian Carome, the executive director of Street Sense, wrote in their year-end appeal for donations: “There are no more cold winter nights outside for Patty. Again and again, she has charmed audiences with her singing and storytelling talents. She is surrounded by people who love and care for her, people who see her for the talented person she is. In this city, income, housing, and educational opportunities are distributed quite inequitably. But talent is spread out with graceful equality.”

Patty’s talent, it turns out, was also the catalyst for an e-mail I recently received from Sharon Dennis, the executive director of Eyes Wide Open Mentoring, a local nonprofit that pairs young people experiencing homelessness with adult mentors. She had heard my podcast with Patty and was hoping to have her sing at a fundraising event to be held at the Turkish Ambassador’s residence this spring. The details need to be ironed out, but there’s a strong chance Patty Smith, who was homeless just two years ago, will be paid to do something she loves to do at a formal event attended by members of Congress, among others.

In producing this podcast series for Street Sense, I’ve been able to talk to an incredibly wide spectrum of fascinating people, from homeless men and women to advocates and artists. Each person thanks me for the opportunity to share, but I inevitably thank them for their time, especially vendors who could be on the street selling the paper. We always talk about music because I always ask his or her favorite song. I love how a brief exchange about art never ceases to establish common ground. Storytelling, we sometimes forget, is not only a fundamental human need—it’s an artistic bridge between two or more souls. Stories educate and entertain. Stories create room for empathy. Stories open minds and heal broken hearts. Patty’s current situation is not perfect and it won’t ever be easy, but things have changed for the better. Patty Smith now has a place to call home.

So if it’s still up for debate, let her story help settle the score: Art can not only change lives, art can save lives. You can listen to full podcast here. Yes, it includes an excerpt of “American Woman!”