Some creative pursuits fundraise and humanize; others can exclude and displace
By John Seeley
I saw no official proclamation by Mayor Garcetti, but April must have been Arts and the Homeless Month in Los Angeles.
Starting April 13, there was Homeward L.A. — 10 days of homeless-themed theater, melding a dozen short monologues based on stories by recent Skid Row residents, delivered by hundreds of actors at 26 venues from Pasadena to Pacific Palisades.
On April 21, as this effusive thespian embrace was winding down, the homeless of Venice found themselves surrounded by equally enthusiastic members of the street-art community, spray-paint in hand and ready to redecorate the fences that enclose their Third Avenue habitat behind Google’s offices and Gold’s Gym.
All that was missing was a concert by Nathaniel Ayers, the once-homeless violin prodigy discovered by Steve Lopez and brought onscreen in “The Soloist.”
ACT ONE: Financially, “Home-ward” scored big, raising more than $50,000 to benefit the Midnight Mission. It was also an artistic success; at the Sawtelle and Venice show, the cast got a standing ovation after 12 moving, if sometimes puzzling (Does getting robbed of your lunch money in middle school ordain a lifelong downward spiral?) performances.
ACT TWO: Activities on Third went less smoothly for the homeless. While unhoused folks’ own narratives were the core of the theater shows, no one had bothered to integrate — or even notify — them. According to homeless rights activist David Busch, who usually sleeps nearby, people were “just rousted early by LAPD and told to pack up their things and not come back till midnight.”
After effectively disinviting the block’s residents, there was fracas and friction outside Google (a sponsor of the art fest), exacerbated by a prominent Venice Chamber of Commerce presence. Google’s refusal to assist their underfed and toilet-less neighbors despite long discussions last year certainly tainted the event for Busch, who at lunchtime was posting signs on phone poles protesting “Art Fascism” and questioning why there was money for art but not for food or a portable restroom.
With the promiscuous use of the other “F-word” I rolled my mental eyeballs and figured the few dollars spent for spray cans and canvases wouldn’t translate into many meals or toilets. He’s really over-reacting, I thought, just got up on (well, was pushed out of) the wrong side of the sleeping bag. How can you demand, I asked Busch, that the homeless can veto happenings on “your street,” just like a bunch of NIMBY homeowners?
On second thought, there is a moral basis for this proprietary attitude, since an ongoing campaign by property holders continues to push the homeless out of most other Venice sites. So now these fences abutting Google and the storage facility opposite are the walls their backs are up against.
Fears of art days displacing the homeless weekly have been so far ungrounded, though many worry that it’s all part of a larger scheme to “push us out,” as one resident who lost her apartment when Google bought a Brooks Avenue building suggested. Others appear not to mind their colorful new wallpaper.
INTERMISSION: Sitting at the wheel of the 14-foot camper that was my 2014-17 “home base,” I was accosted by an SUV driver who suggested I should relocate, because “you people” are hurting property values and “scaring the children.” Hmmm, perhaps the “Homeward” play should be adapted for children? Actually, as I told SUV-man, I was there only since the city suddenly prohibited nighttime parking on an all-commercial strip of Venice Boulevard — for no apparent reason other than to drive camper dwellers away.
ACT THREE: Irate after this NIMBY episode, I decided to attend the long-running drama staged early Friday mornings along the Venice Boardwalk and Third Street. “Down These Clean Streets” features a large (if slow and drab) parade — dump trucks, LAPD cruisers, washer trucks. The theme (recalling Lady Macbeth) is washing away sin and crime. The role of the homeless? Exit, stage left. But only with the props you can stuff in a trash-can-size bag.
LAPD and the city sanitation department insist they’re supporting actors and point to each other as the lead. Show’s best line: “You can’t take things
out of the [dump-truck] scoop – that would be theft of city property.”
I followed along with its regular attendees (also perceptive critics) from “Streetwatch,” who record key scenes to ensure that homeless property rights specified in court decisions aren’t violated. Some art was trashed, including a piece by Reed Segovia, who paints on objets trouves and sells them on the Venice Boardwalk.
DENOUEMENT: There are talented artists among the homeless: William Laga, a painter afflicted with schizophrenia, moved from Westwood streets to a Melrose gallery show and then an apartment; a homeless heroin user on London streets ascended to international shows. Enough painting around the homeless; we need painting of the homeless, by the homeless, for the homeless, as Lincoln likely said when his log cabin was in the blueprint phase.
Perhaps the next season of Homeward L.A. should go beyond humanizing the homeless and segue into the practical problems they face today.