City of Angels

“If Science gives us knowledge, Art gives us ourselves.”

LA is a city of contrast. 100, 000 people are homeless, more than any US city. Meanwhile its film industry is worth nearly $100 billion.

Lillian and Leonard were some of the first people I met in LA, they instantly opened their city up to me as if it were my home as much as theirs. Leonard had laid out a miniature banquet “we thought you’d be ready to stop for tea at this time of day”. Unbeknownst to them their welcome was exactly what I needed after innocently staying at an Inglewood motel the night before and going for a 9pm stroll for snacks (much to the bemusement of the local 7/11 owner and his clientele), a neighbourhood that according to real estate websites is a 19 if the safest neighbourhood in the country is 100…

Leonard, a lifelong actor, perched at Lillian’s side on her desk while I introduced myself, explaining why I’d flown 5000 miles to speak to people like her. At this stage I wasn’t even sure if our project would translate and if anyone would be interested in a nationwide movement to bring the arts together with some of the most excluded people in society. When I’d finished he simply said “If Science gives us knowledge, Art gives us ourselves”.

Lillian has been running Skid Row Artists by herself for twenty years. For context, this is Skid Row. Lillian started her career as a social worker with a fine arts degree, when she arrived on Skid Row to work with a housing trust she saw people with such a consuming desire to create they were drawing on walls and pulling paper from trash cans to sketch and write. She convinced her housing trust to provide arts resources and a studio space within a housing block to support the creativity pouring out from the streets.

Work at Skid Row Artists Studio

While the personal healing powers of the arts are a given, the paths created out of Skid Row through Lillian’s programme are the true transformation taking place. She took me to their studio, the walls lined with all manner of canvases, paper spilling out from the shelves, drawers and tables as if there had been a valve unblocked, gushing creative expression in to the space.

Lillian told me about Enrique who came in to the studio while living on Skid Row. When he arrived in the US his immigration status was ‘murky’, unable to find work to sustain his rent he ended up living on the street. After a few months he found Skid Row Artists, ultimately creating artwork which earned him a scholarship at Berkley. Due to his immigration status he was unable to take his place, but now lives in a flat in a good area of town and earns his living entirely from his art.

However, for every Enrique who now sells his work for thousands of dollars, there’s a story like that of Juliette, who had no fingers last time Lillian saw her. Lillian told me the only evidence left of her being was the framed picture on her desk.

Juliette’s Bird

Not only does art give us ourselves, it shows others we exist. Beyond the headlines of a homelessness state of emergency, there are lives impacted by a society that casts them aside as soon as it fails them. Statistics can be forgotten, stories can not.

When Lillian leaves there is no one to take her place running workshops, there is also no home for the work created in her Skid Row studio, if this stays the case LA shows it has no place for the people who created it.

Lillian Abel in her Santa Fe studio

I visited Skid Row properly several days after meeting with Lillian, I didn’t take my own photos, because no human being should have their photograph taken with such indignity and no human being should be so undignified to take it.

I have gone in to shock twice in my life, once nearly drowning in a river when I was a teenager, the other was after leaving Skid Row. I have seen the most extreme poverty in the back streets of Siem Reap, underpasses of Sao Paolo and railway lines of New Delhi, I have never seen anything like Skid Row. Women wander with their tops around their waists as men navigate them back to their bedsit to pay for their services, women and children lay comatose in the courtyards of male only missions for safety, nursery age children scream in gaggles on street corners and thousands of human beings line sidewalks in tents and inject themselves with heavier relief than I need explain. Two blocks from the comfort and fortune of Downtown LA. Seeing humanity exist in such circumstances was difficult enough, but the hardest thing to understand was no LA native I met outside of the homelessness sector had seen Skid Row, despite all knowing it existed.

But when patients from defunct mental health institutions and those released from hospitals and prisons without a home to go to are all discharged to a five block radius, it is all too easy not to see. By official accounts there are nearly 100,000 people currently without a stable home in Los Angeles County, I have repeatedly been told it is more than likely double. But they are numbers. The numbers are not the only reason a state of emergency has been called in the city, the political crisis is those people are spreading out of Skid Row in to Santa Monica and Venice Beach. They are visible for the first time. Clearly definitions of crises differ.

My definition of a crisis is the lack of volunteers to run the Midnight Mission’s art classes, so when I sat in their lobby speaking to Matthew, he could reveal his lyrics to me but no one else will hear them. The theatre performances The Downtown Women’s Centre would love to provide for their members again but don’t have the staff capacity to run. The work sat in Skid Row Artists which could disappear with Lillian, while The Broad family spends $140 million on one gallery space. There is a State of Emergency in Los Angeles, there are hundreds of thousands of voices being silenced through a lack of freedom of self expression, while wealthy communities create lobbying organisations to keep homeless services out of their backyard.

Mark Horvath is doing his part in bringing those voices to the fore, he runs a video project, Invisible People, telling the stories of people living on the streets across America. When I arrived in LA Mark and I had both forgotten to arrange to meet for coffee, a few hurried emails later he asked if I wanted to join him handing out socks in Santa Monica instead. Obviously I said yes. A true host, Mark took me on the LA tour through the collage of Beverley Hills and West Hollywood down to Santa Monica beach, the tour would later serve as the patch-working I needed to understand LA. “The socks are a conversation starter” he said as he stuffed two packs in to my bag in a Santa Monica car park.

As we wandered past condos worth $2million the first signs of LA’s rent hikes began to emerge. We stopped to speak to Jeffrey whose landlord increased his and his Aunt’s rent so far they were forced on to the streets four months ago. Francine, the elderly woman we spoke to next, couldn’t respond when Mark asked how long she had been on the streets and instead motioned to the facial hair sprouting on her face. Mark was filming for the HHH campaign to show the human reasons for voting for the measure on Nov 8th. I couldn’t believe there needed to be a lobby to support a measure which takes an average $32 from a $321,000 home to build social housing, but nothing surprises me anymore, especially when people stop understanding one another.

Talking to Francine broke my heart, as it would any human being, I had the feeling it wouldn’t be the only time in the coming weeks. I asked Mark what his coping mechanism was later over grilled cheese and Mexican Cola, he pointed at the grilled cheese and said “don’t order diet either”.

Towards the tail end of the week I went to visit the Integrated Recovery Network and Marsha Temple. The Integrated Recovery Network work with people experiencing homelessness who have co-occurring mental illness and drug addiction. They provide people with housing and then work to provide financial, mental health and medical support. Housing first before Housing First. She took me through the intricacies of California’s mental health system, starting with the closure of all of their state-run mental health institutions in the 60s and 70s by then state Governor, Ronald Reagan. “The jails quickly became where people with mental illnesses were sent and pumped full of psychiatric medication.” It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to make the link between a for profit prison and drug system and the lack of mental health support.

People leaving prison suffering from mental illnesses are then re-entering society after being heavily medicated for long periods with no access to the same drugs. This is where Skid Row appears. This is also where Marsha appears, after years as a lawyer fighting battles for hospitals she turned her attention to the people entering them. “I started the organisation to stop the revolving door between Twin Towers [LA’s county jail] and Skid Row”. As well as providing housing, financial and medical support, they are opening a wellness centre to provide training on nutrition, where to find healthy food in LA and what to do with it. She also sees the arts as an essential part of the steps people take to reintegrate themselves back in to society and rediscovering themselves.

During our two hour conversation it slowly dawned on me Marsha had set up her own NHS within the gaps in the current system. Since the state seemed to be leaving those gaps wide open, I wondered what political support there was for people experiencing homelessness in LA and organisations like hers. Marsha replied with an anecdote about one of the city’s most recent measures to provide funding to improve parks in Santa Monica:

“Parks are great, they’re a necessary part of every city, but we already have nice parks in Santa Monica. What we don’t have are houses and the support to help vulnerable people to stay in them. That’s like watering your lawn when your house is burning down.”

To see anything change for the city’s most vulnerable residents, the City of Angels needs to realise they have more in common than the property prices keeping them apart. My faith is in the ability of people I met like Marsha, Mark, Lillian and The Downtown Women’s Centre to work with the silenced voices and show others they exist, only then can they start listening to one another and finally speak with one voice.