Downtown LA’s Skid Row hosts the largest concentration of homeless people in the country.
KCRW’s Press Play covered the city’s latest efforts to address the growing number of people affected by homeless. The recent Department of Veterans Affairs scandal has motivated many, including First Lady Michelle Obama, to scrutinize how we care for our country’s homeless veterans.
Local officials are trying to change their approach to homeless residents, by conducting fewer arrests for petty crimes, and focusing more on mental health outreach.
Here is one story about something good happening on Skid Row, where an art program is helping people affected by homelessness find stable ground in an otherwise unstable neighborhood.
As a homeless photographer on Skid Row, Angela Wash never thought she’d see this day. A picture of hers is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen location, in Downtown L.A.
She couldn’t believe it when she heard the news. “I got very emotional and I believe I cried,” Angela said with a smile. “It was a happy cry because I was flattered that my photo was picked.”
Angela moved to L.A. with her family in 2002, but when her husband suddenly died two years ago, her life changed dramatically. She lost her home.
She sought refuge at LAMP Community – a homeless shelter in the heart of Skid Row. Free art classes are taught there, and it’s where Angela learned photography.
“It’s opening up a door that I really didn’t think that I’d be able to open,” she said. “I just always use to say how much I loved photography and dreamed of knowing how to do photography,” and said she hopes it’s a skill that’ll help her get off the streets.
Hayk Makhmuryan is LAMP’s art director and he uses art to help people transition into permanent, supportive housing.
Twice a week he opens LAMP’s doors to anyone interested in exploring art. “We set up creativity stations and art materials,” Makhmuryan said, “and we make sure that this is outfitted as a studio space.”
He encourages his students to come frequently because it adds the structure that he says can help improve their lives. “So many parts of a person’s life in the Skid Row community are completely unpredictable,” he said. “So, having islands of predictability, of familiarity is a very important stabilizing component.”
Last year, the L.A. Homeless Service Authority reported that the city’s homeless population increased nearly 20 percent over the last two years to 50,000 people. That’s enough to fill the seats at the Staples Center twice over.
Art may seem like an extravagance for people on Skid Row, but some have found it to be therapeutic. “Having that safe space to do that is incredibly healing and empowering,” said Beth Stirnaman, who teaches photography at LAMP. She said helping people tell their stories is important. “That really translates to gaining confidence in themselves and really growing as an individual to be able to overcome the hardships that they’re facing.”
Right outside MOCA is Los Angeles artist Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead – a public art project that’s part of his retrospective, and where Angela’s work is on display. The Homestead is a replica of Kelley’s childhood suburban house: cozy-looking, with white clapboard, blue trim, and a porch.
Angela walks up to the door, and goes inside. “I’m super-duper excited, you couldn’t have told me that this would happen,” she said, grinning from ear to ear.
Angela is hopeful she’ll get permanent housing soon that will point her in a new, and more stable, direction. She has a new job – at L.A.’s Music Center – and she’s going to continue taking photographs.
“Even if I’m not down in Skid Row I’m still coming to the classes,” she said. “I’m still going to give back.”
On Sunday, Hayk Makhmuryan and members of the LAMP community will host a workshop and a live music jam by Skid Row musicians at the Mobile Homestead.
Work by Skid Row artists like Angela Wash will be on display until Kelley’s retrospective closes at the end of this month.
You can see Angela’s photography and the artwork of others living on Skid Row here and here.