Phaye Poliakoff-Chen had heard about Earl’s Place many times from her neighbor, Kay Joellenbeck. Phaye was a busy working mother with two young sons, and was already volunteering at her sons’ schools, so she didn’t feel she had time to take on another project. Then one day Kay approached her with great intensity about something completely different. Kay rapped on Phaye’s car window, demanding to know, “What are you doing to stop the Gulf War?” The question itself, combined with Kay’s urgency, reminded Phaye that there were critical issues outside her normal sphere. That encounter with Kay started what has become a ten-year (and counting) arts partnership with Earl’s Place. Initially, the work began with one partnership with Goucher College, where Phaye teaches writing and interdisciplinary studies. But over the course of ten years, other people and organizations in the community have joined.

In December, the Maryland State Arts Council recognized the Earl’s Place Arts program. Their Creativity Grant will help fund an outdoor mosaic mural for the Earl’s Place building. The beauty of the project is that the residents will take part in the design process, even creating tiles that will be part of this public installation.

Recently, Phaye used her interaction with Kay Joellenbeck, a strong Earl’s Place advocate and anti-war activist, as a lead up to a writing prompt, designed to spark this collaborative design process.

She asked: “When you walked into Earl’s Place for the first time, what did you notice?” As a writing teacher, she wanted the men to write down specific imagery. Those details are what make your experience come alive, she explained. Most of the men did as she asked.  But one resident in particular balked. “We weren’t looking at the things in front of us. We were concerned about our future. We knew this was the last chance, and we better not let this go to waste.”

What followed was a lively conversation about feelings, objects, and observations that have shaped their experiences at Earl’s Place.

Of course, almost everyone listed Sophie, the old black and white cat that lives inside. Sophie makes Earl’s Place homey, they said.

Charles was the first to mention the mailboxes.  Every man had his own mailbox. That symbolized their individuality, that there were being seen first as people. And, having a mailbox meant he could receive important notices that often disappeared in shelters and never appeared on the street. Logan and a couple other men held up their lists to show that they too had been impressed or comforted by this simple space. This led to other symbols of individuality – the key to their own room, for example, as well as having their own room. Many of the men talked about having come from dormitory settings with 50 other men. This new privacy would allow them to get well. It gave them dignity and hope.

But Charles didn’t stop at the image of the mailboxes or keys. He recognized that these were the building blocks. Getting well also requires commitment, work, and responsibility on his part to be successful.  He put those words in writing inside a sketch of his mailbox.

Other men spoke about the In/Out Board. Someone cares where you are. Josh noted that Earl’s Place stood for a safe zone in the middle of chaos, “like a compass rose.”

Teddy spoke about the artwork that covers the walls. He said, “The art reminds me of a place in Louisiana, going to museums there growing up.”  He said that the art made him feel like that this was where he was supposed to be.

Everyone agreed that they felt welcome when they first arrived. They noticed the red door, the exercise bike, Sheila, and Jim, the case manager. Someone pointed out how small Jim’s office was – they said it made them feel sorry for him. Jim took the ribbing in stride. That camaraderie is what makes Earl’s Place work.

Ricky mentioned how important the quote on the wall in the common area was to him that first day. He read,  “Don’t judge or look at my past too hard, I don’t live there anymore.”  Others nodded in agreement. Someone else mentioned another quote posted above the exit sign: “You can come in and you can go out. But you can also stay.”

Linwood, waited until the end of the conversation to add that he saw the roof before he walked in the door. Having a roof over his head meant opportunity and safety.  “The roof,” he explained, “Is the peak. I’m reaching the peak with a ladder. But I’m being careful not to climb too fast. If I climb too fast, I might slip.”

Regardless of what they noticed or remembered, all of them continue to express gratitude for the opportunities they have.