Sunday, July 31, 2005
Artist Uses Creativity
to Assist the Homeless
By Lindsay Ryan
Washington Post Staff Writer
They hang neatly side by side on a rack in his office – a fez, a cowboy hat, a Cleveland Indians baseball cap, a straw hat, a leather visor.
Christopher Fay is a man of many hats.
In his latest incarnation, Fay works to implement a rehabilitation program that combines communal living, education and businesses run by ex-offenders and former substance abusers. But screenwriter, children’s book illustrator, artist, activist and advocate are equally accurate titles for Fay.
Fay, 50, grew up in Hiram, Ohio, a rural speck on the map so small that from the hill at one end, “you could take your foot off the gas and coast all through town,” he said.
When he, his brother and several neighborhood kids were 6 or 7, they started an “I Hate Charlie” club to tease and torment the mentally handicapped man who lived next door to his family, Fay said. One day, “he came up and sort of cornered me in a nook, and he said, ‘Chris, why do you hate me?’ And one of the rules was that we didn’t speak to him, and he just repeated, ‘Why do you hate me? I don’t hate you.’ Then he walked away,” Fay said.
The club soon disbanded, but in film school at Columbia University, Fay used the experience as the basis for the screenplay “Carry Me Home,” which aired on Showtime in 2004 and was released on video this spring.
In the early ’90s in New York, Fay was volunteering at a soup kitchen at Broadway Presbyterian Church when he developed an interest in the “mole In the early ‘90s in New York, Fay was volunteering at a soup kitchen at people,” as he described them, who made their home in a defunct Amtrak tunnel. Walking through the park, passersby could see their work: murals where shafts of light from the grates lit the dank tunnel floor, he said. At the soup kitchen, Fay met Matthew Wilson. An illiterate crack addict with a deep voice, a black belt in karate and a habit of walking through the park lifting cinder blocks to work out, Wilson commanded a wide berth from most people -- but was a fascinating storyteller, Fay said.
Fay asked to film his life. “You’re going to be my best buddy and buy me coffee and pizza and doughnuts,” Fay remembered Wilson telling him, “and then when this is over, you’ll have a movie, and I won’t even know where to find you.”
Fay gave Wilson his word that he’d devote time to working with the homeless if Wilson would let him make the documentary. That bargain resulted in the independent film “On a Mission,” which came out in 1992 and is still used by many substance abuse programs for its uncensored window on addiction.
Fay admitted he did not intend to keep his promise at first, but he became ever more deeply moved by and involved in the lives of the homeless. He ended up founding a program at Broadway Presbyterian Church that offered substance abuse treatment, help finding housing and such enterprises as clockmaking and culinary arts. His focus changed from the well-connected world of filmmaking to the gritty realities of New York’s crack cocaine and AIDS epidemics. He took political refugees and homeless people, some mentally disturbed, into his home. “It’s very difficulty to live with someone who believes they’re the Lamb of God,” he recalled.
After a short break from working at the shelter, he went to the District-based Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, which tries to identify successful programs for the extremely disadvantaged and replicate them on a scale that matches the problem, said Alan Curtis, the foundation’s president and chief executive. Fay still works on films and is planning one on a group of rural Ugandan orphans who tour the United States every two years with a musical performance to raise money for their orphanages.
In his job with the foundation, Fay travels throughout the country helping replicate a rehabilitation model pioneered by San Francisco’s Delancey Street Foundation in which someone can “come in with an eighth-grade education, terrible health and a history of substance abuse and come out four years later with a college degree and get a good job,” he said. The original program in San Francisco houses about 500 felons and former drug abusers who police each other’s behavior. They run a restaurant, cafe and bookstore, a moving business and a Christmas tree sales company, among other enterprises. The foundation is working on establishing such a program in the Baltimore-Washington area, Curtis and Fay said.
As he told his story, Fay leaned back in his chair in an office containing video equipment, awards for criminal justice work, a flier for his movie and a poster for the Ugandan children’s show. Straddling the worlds of the filmmaker and the soup kitchen volunteer, the foundation employee and the community activist, Fay’s range of identities, Curtis said, offers “the 21st-century parallel to the kinds of interactive visions Leonardo da Vinci would see when he was being an architect, an artist, a scientist and a writer.”
The multiple problems of today’s mean streets, Curtis said, demand a modern Renaissance man.