Formerly homeless New Yorker finds rehabilitation through art therapy

In The Media

January 18, 2023

A Brooklyn based nonprofit offers one-stop support to thousands of New Yorkers who are homeless or in danger of living on the street.

More than 100,000 New Yorkers are homeless.

“I just wanted to show the world that color is beautiful,” said Victor Alicea who once was homeless himself.

Now, his life looks entirely different. Alicea’s world is made up of vibrant hues, from radiant reds to brilliant blues.

“I come here, and I do art,” said Alicea. “That makes me feel good, and it also gives me therapy.”

An art studio in Brooklyn is a place of refuge for Alicea, who started coming here six years ago when he didn’t even have a roof over his head. Alicea was homeless for three years.

“I was out in the streets, and I was homeless, and I was ripping and running, drinking and drugging,” said Alicea. “It was real bad for me at that time.”

Institute for Community Living, or ICL, in East New York offers more than a creative outlet here. It also provides mental health therapy and drug rehabilitation.

“Never in the world did I think that I was gonna be here and make it to 60 years old,” said Alicea.

Alicea is part of ICL’s personalized recovery program where clients take part in group therapy, receive one-on-one counseling and secure housing. More than 3,000 people sleep under an ICL roof each night. Staffers also go through the city’s referral system to place people in supportive housing.

“Before you leave here, you feel like there’s some kind of hope for you. There is some kind of way out for you,” said Alicea.

Social worker Tiana Cintron says art provides the base for clients like Alicea.

“He does art, and he’s just in the moment. He feels safe,” said Cintron. “Jobs like this, they don’t tell you, ‘I love the work you’re doing, I’m so glad you’re my therapist.’ It’s afterwards when they leave, and you see what they accomplished.”

In June, Alicea’s paintings were on display at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibit called “Creating a Lifeline” featured artwork by more than a dozen ICL clients.

“Now that I look at what I have done for the last ten years, what have I accomplished in the last ten years, I am very proud of myself,” said Alicea.

Thanks to ICL, Alicea secured housing at Unique People Services in the Bronx. He’s lived in his two-bedroom unit for three years now and with that security, Alicea says he can focus on his career and dreams. He hopes to open his own art gallery one day.

“I see my career ten years from now being one of the best artists in New York City,” said Alicea. “I see myself being somebody who came from a very bad place to a very good place now and I’m gonna continue on that road and see what my life will bring after this.”

ICL has served more than 15,000 clients across all programs since it started 35 years ago. In the last year, ICL says it helped nearly 350 people move from a homeless shelter to permanent housing.

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