Putting the Arts to Work for Homeless Youth in Los Angeles
Art is more than entertainment or decoration.
Back in March, this photo caused some tepid online outrage in Los Angeles, and spurred another (too brief) examination of the homelessness crisis in the city. It served as a snapshot of how relatively wealthy millennials were changing some of Los Angeles’ most iconic neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves into playgrounds of twenty-something decadence, literally stepping over homeless residents to snap a selfie in front of a cheeky mural. When I saw it, I was immediately upset by not only how indifferent the two girls seem in this context, but also how public art is portrayed as a marker of gentrification, a background for mostly white, affluent hipsters to paint over the history and identity of the places they are moving to, displacing long term residents and businesses, pressuring rents higher and higher, exacerbating the epidemic of homelessness that is so pronounced in Los Angeles.
Over 47,000 people in Los Angeles are homeless, an increase of 3,000 from just a year ago. The pressures of rapidly rising housing costs, depressed wages, and still inadequate social services mix with the unique geography and climate of our city to create an epidemic, one the city has pledged to solve. Mayor Garcetti’s latest budget includes almost $2B over the next ten years to combat the problem, with large amounts proposed for long-term affordable housing, and it’s a good sign that government is finally getting serious about helping people find viable shelter.
Public art, especially mural, but also sculpture, music, dance and other performance funded by non-profit organizations, has a century long history in our city. It is a hallmark of our most important neighborhoods, from the murals sponsored by SPARC, and those painted by dozens of Chicano/Chicana artists that glorify the city’s structures, to the Frogtown Art Walk, to the monthly live performances in Leimert Park Village. There are more non-profit theater companies in Los Angeles than any other city in the country, and our one-of-a-kind creative economy ensures that there is always a surplus of talented artists looking to practice their crafts on behalf of the public.
But the arts can also be an early warning of gentrification.
Just thirty years ago, Culver City was a backwater neighborhood in the shadow of Sony studios. Then artists moved in, accepted $1 leases from the city (Actor’s Gang Theatre), took redevelopment funds (Center Theatre Group), and paved the way for a monumental revitalization that drove home prices so high that long term residents can’t afford the $1M+ price tag to stay near where their parents and grandparents were raised.
Economics and demographic change is a force larger than any one person, or even one group. But the arts do not have to be a symbol of inequality and indifference. Artists have a duty to be evocative, challenging, empathetic, and inclusive. Their works should do more than decorate a space for the enjoyment of those who can afford it. And with the right partnerships, they can even do more than paint a picture, evoke an emotion, or tell a story.
Brimmer Street Theatre Company is embarking on a production that seeks to harness the power of storytelling to raise funds to relieve youth homelessness in Los Angeles. As a non-profit company, we are able to seek donations from the public, because the government regards the arts as a public good, as do we. But we’d like to go even further by producing our next show entirely for the benefit of an organization working to make a real difference for young homeless people in our city.
Written by Tira Palmquist, And Then They Fell, tells the story of Jordan and Cal, two teenagers who find themselves without stable homes. Jordan has fled a home wrecked by alcoholism and sexual abuse while still trying to finish high school. Cal is a young transgender boy set adrift by his family’s intolerance and the failure of adults and institutions around him. They find each other, and for a while, they give each other the hope and security they so desperately need.
To help put this art to work for real change in our city, we will donate 100% of all of our ticket sales, plus every dollar we raise in excess of our production costs, to My Friend’s Place. My Friend’s Place has a mission to assist and inspire homeless youth to build self-sufficient lives. It is a professionally staffed drop-in resource center serving over 1,400 homeless youths ages 12 to 25 (and their children) each year. Our hope is that through this partnership, we can create a model for arts funding that does more than employ artists and create culture (both very important) but also leaves a meaningful and tangible impact on the neighborhoods it represents.
Our campaign is ongoing, you can contribute to it here.
By working together, arts and service non-profits can make a better city together, one that everyone can be proud to call home.