Skid Row’s Room To Create
A safe space for the most vulnerable artists and musicians.
On a balmy Wednesday afternoon at the corner of 5th and San Pedro, a crowd of people meander in front of shuttered warehouses, spilling into the streets. The uneven sidewalks are lined with streams of tents in various states of disrepair, occupied by individuals in various stages of vulnerability.
Whether jovial or aggressive, the sound of shouting is ever present. When so many people occupy a limited stretch of land, there is always friction.
As we pass more shuttered warehouses, the crowd starts to thin and the noise of shouting becomes distant. We’ve reached the bright yellow walls of The Village, an interim housing facility of The People Concern. There is a general understanding between the people on the streets and the staff of The Village that no unlawful activity occurs between the boundaries of those yellow walls. The loan sharks and the men peddling their wares respect what’s going on inside the building. There’s a place inside that gives sanctuary to those who enter.
The Arts Program of The People Concern is a small but welcoming arts and cultural center — the only facility of its kind available to the residents (housed or not) of Skid Row. Being homeless is not a criteria to join the program, but the demographics of the neighborhood space reflect those of the community. Since the program began in 2008, it has enrolled over 471 artists and musicians.
The studio is spacious but simple. It’s reminiscent of a Brooklyn artist’s loft, all pipes and beams, concrete and exposed brick. Colorful canvases crafted by present and past artists are carefully curated on the walls. Smooth jazz and the smell of fresh coffee fills the air. There is an aura of tranquil calm that envelops the room, punctuated only by the opening and closing of the front door to the outside world.
A colorful sign that reads “Safe Space” hangs over the supply room window. Only three other words are written on the sign: Respect. Participate. Focus. These are the tenets of the Arts Program.
Scattered around the room are people immersed in their work. They are focused and absorbed in their projects, but are social. Two artists chat across a table while sketching.
“I’m going to try and do it,” one of the artists says. “But I’m going to need your opinion.”
“Have you thought about what’s next?” the man responds.
A few other artists navigate the space, chatting as they get up to grab additional supplies for their work. In this space, people of all genders, races, and artistic endeavors co-exist around the common thread of creativity. Together, they bring their backgrounds into harmony.
The program provides a safe space for artists and musicians to hone their crafts. The creative expression provides a therapeutic outlet that allows individuals to thrive. Whatever their purpose for utilizing the space, artists are welcome to make use of the supplies. In addition to the art room, there is a music studio further into The People Concern’s interim housing facility. Jacques Paige, The People Concern’s Director of Member Resources, ensures both are well-stocked with needed resources. Art supplies and instruments are donated or carefully purchased with donated funds.
Inarguably, at the center holding it all together is Hayk Makhmuryan, The People Concern’s Arts Coordinator. He started with the agency in 2008 and has grown the program from a small fine arts studio into a vibrant, welcoming community full of activities and workshops like creative writing.
When asked how he thinks he was able to foster this atmosphere, Hayk responds humbly.
“[The community atmosphere] is not forced,” he says. “We are all drawn to a sense of community. There’s a real understanding of collaboration. It connects folks. We stake our place in the community.”
The artists treat Hayk with the utmost respect, but his presence is never controlling. Instead he communicates person to person, artist to artist. He is more of a guide, floating around the room from one person to the next with a sense of quiet urgency.
With Hayk as the core staff member, his band of volunteers, and collective of artists, the program is so successful it is outgrowing itself. Eighty-five people utilized the space last month. Hayk is mindful of what works and what doesn’t. Too many in the space and people can grow impatient waiting for assistance, ruining the therapeutic atmosphere. Ideally, the space would hold 15 people at a time, but the need in the community is so great that it sometimes pushes twice that.
Despite needing the extra space, Hayk does his best to hold onto the work of a fellow artist regardless of where their journey has taken them or how long it’s been since they last visited. Instead, they are treated as “artists on vacation,” their work preserved in folders until they return.
“Spaces like ours are important to every part of people’s journ[eys],” he says.
In one corner of the room there’s a large papier-mâché elephant head. One of the program participants has been working regularly on it for almost a year. Tiny intricate paisley cut-outs litter the table in front of him; he is carefully cutting them from fabric and pasting them on to his creation individually. It is beautiful.
Unsure if he has a place for it, I ask him if he has any plans for the elephant head. He says he doesn’t know yet.
Regardless, he will always have a place in the Arts Program.