Supportive Housing Helps People Get Back On Their Feet : Shots - Health News William Kitt was living on the streets, abusing drugs and very sick when Broadway Housing Communities in New York offered him a room. Thirteen years later, he's thriving. His art tells the tale.
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Invisibilia: For An Artist, A Room Of His Own Is A Lifesaver

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

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

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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.

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