Kelvin, who has an intellectual disability, is able to dedicate time to these passions because he lives independently in his own apartment, with staff who come several times a week to help with his medications, errands, and other tasks. Kelvin’s budget is tight, but he loves to find deals at thrift stores on the furniture and décor that he loves. He explains that his tastes run to “more antique-like things,” which is clear everywhere in his home from the classic sleigh-bed frame to the vintage 1980s crock pot that has its place in a neat line in the kitchen, alongside the air fryer, the Instant Pot, and the non-vintage crock pot.
These appliances are more than a convenience for Kelvin; they make it safer for him to cook meals independently in his home. For one thing, he says, the timers on these devices make it impossible for him to walk away from his cooking for too long and risk a fire. And another: Conventional ovens make kitchens quite warm. “And if I get too hot,” he explains, “I will get a seizure. And I know the old saying goes, ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!’” His laughter is infectious. Kelvin’s flair for interior decorating is a family trait. “Oh, yeah. I’ve always enjoyed decorating, ever since I was coming up as a child.” He has a sister who is much older and remembers admiring the look of her house when he was growing up. And then there was his mother.
“My mother always said, ‘Ooh, I’ve got to put this sofa over here and move this loveseat over there.” She was a busy woman, though, and didn’t always have time to follow through on her redecorating desires—and so one time, when she wasn’t home, he moved the furniture for her. He beams now to recall her expression when she saw her living room looking exactly the way she’d wanted. The lesson of that story? “Surprise your mama, and she’ll be proud of you!”
The loss of his mother two decades ago left Kelvin completely bereft. “I felt so all alone. And that’s when I really got closer to God.” These days, Kelvin attends church weekly, listens to his favorite minister preach on the radio, and finds solace in his prayer room, whose wall hangings inspire him. He says his family doesn’t get together much anymore except for funerals; it’s church that sustains him and keeps him connected to a source of love and community.
Kelvin’s sense of style extends to personal fashion, too: He keeps a neatly stacked collection of trilby hats in a broad range of colors, from purple—his favorite (“That’s a royal color, and that’s the color Jesus’s robe was!”), to grey houndstooth (“I’m looking for a matching suit for this one!”), to bright red (On Valentine’s Day, he wears all red and laughingly tells people to call him “the love doctor.”)
Sometimes, he gets frustrated. It often happens when his fierce desire to shape his own environment meets the constraints of life as someone living on a fixed budget, as he does. For example, in his love of comparison shopping, he sometimes feels condescended to by aides who tell him that certain items are outside of his price range. Or, as he puts it, “I like to take my time and make my own decisions. I don’t need someone telling me, ‘You don’t need to get that!’ like a parent tells a child.” Living with a disability means Kelvin needs help with some activities of daily living. But he’s also a 46-year-old man with his own passions, goals, and natural desire for personal agency.
A few years ago, that sense of agency led him here. He grew up in a housing project in a part of town he says is best known for occasional shootings. “That environment I was in, I got tired of that area,” he says—especially as younger friends began leaving and the elders who had checked in on him and had been his friends began passing away. “I thought, ‘The energy I need is not around here anymore.’ I needed to move!’” Funds from his Medicaid waiver made it possible for his caseworkers to find his current light-filled apartment in another neighborhood—which he says has made all the difference. “When God placed me in this area, I felt more upgraded.”
In some ways, Kelvin Carter’s life has been a series of upgrades, made possible largely through the Medicaid waiver which allows him to live outside of an institution. Environment matters to all of us, whether that means living in places free of crime, near the people we care about, or filled with the furniture we’ve picked out ourselves with our collections of favorite hats near at hand in a neat stack. Maybe, in some ways, that’s what finding home is all about: a series of upgrades.
There’s more that he wants to do: He says he’s been lobbying for a storm door so that he could let more light in his entryway. There’s a recliner he’s had his eye on for weeks—and somewhere, who knows where, in the future, there’s that houndstooth suit that matches his hat. But for now, he’s going to go back upstairs, put on another hat, his blue hat and walk out into the sun. When people ask him why he’s wearing a bright blue hat, he’ll say, “Don’t you see how good that blue sky looks up there? God gave me a blue sky today!”
Photos by Jessica Whitley