Everyone In! Stories Under The Stars From The Frontlines
"The power of storytelling is exactly this: To bridge the gaps where everything else has crumbled"
- Paulo Coelho
Venice came together as a community again last night at a lovely event in The Brig parking lot, to try to do something to help end homelessness. We just our fantastic fundraiser last Saturday for our documentary 90291: VENICE UNZIPPED about just this, so the collective consciousness of Venice seems to be on the same page. There was a big door inviting everyone in, both to the parking lot venue, and symbolically into homes for those without them.
A big crowd was already gathered when I arrived, and Harry Shearer (um, Spinal Tap! The Simpsons!) was making his introduction speech. We were going to hear stories from those on the frontline of the homeless issue, both those who have been homeless, are currently homeless, or were working to help the homeless. Heroes all.
Marilyn Wells spoke first, and as an advocate for homeless neighbors, she set the tone of concern and empathy. "Finding homes for everyone is the defining issue of our times," she stated, and I fully agree (and is also why we're making our documentary). Any of us could end up homeless at any time (and I still pretty much am, so all of these stories very much hit home), and Wells asked, "What would YOUR homelessness look like?" Moving encampments away a few blocks does nothing. Putting up fences does nothing. Harassing the homeless does nothing. "Each of us has the power to do something about this. Please listen to these stories and decide what your something is. Be inspired to take action." With the stories that followed, you couldn't help but be fired up.
Motique Alston, an outreach worker with the wonderful Venice St. Joseph's Center, shared her own tale of homelessness, and the truth that "Permanent AFFORDABLE housing is almost impossible to find in Los Angeles", and that "there are SO many people in need." One only had to walk a short way down Abbot Kinney afterward to see people sleeping in the doorways of the fancy shops, sharpening the focus on our nation's income inequality. St. Joe's helped Alston, so now she helps them. And so will we. There was a big food spread set up, a bar, and booths showcasing the organizations that helped everyone telling their stories on this night. They were rightfully receiving major kudos from everyone there, and the hope is that folks will stay involved now that the know all the good that they are doing. To truly be IN.
Erika Herod is a peer navigator at Safe Place For Youth (S.P.Y.), and told about how she was in an abusive home, which led to her living on the streets. Going to school is hard when you sleep outside. Hard to get clean. Hard to have clothes to wear. Hard to get there. But she did it. And we applauded her for it, loudly. "Not many people care about the homeless because of the assumptions that they have about them," Herod said, and that's sad but true. Events like this help to erase those assumptions, but looking around made me concerned that it wasn't the people that need to hear it. We were all in already ... it's the NIMBYs that need to hear these stories ... Now. Herod closed by saying that she has been housed a year now, garnering happy cheers from her listeners.
I was told that Snapchat CEO, Evan Spiegel, skulked in to the event in a hoodie, dropped off by his limo. I wish I'd seen him, because I would have told him that he had a lot of nerve being there, when his company has caused the displacement of so many. But then, he and people of his ilk, are exactly who needs to hear these stories ... though I'm sure his appearance was just that - for the appearance.
Shearer lamented the fact that much of the huge development going on is for people that will never even live in the homes, they're just money havens for wealthy, and then cracked, "And now a representative from our Government," earning laughs. Councilman Mike Bonin is another local figure I've been mixed on (mainly due to his failure to secure a position for Jesse Martinez and his maintenance of the Venice Skatepark, and glad handing of people like Spiegel), but after hearing his own personal story, I've softened my stance a bit. It's rare for a politician to be so forthcoming, as when Bonin said that he used to be a meth addict, sleeping in his car with only bologna and whiskey to sustain him. Whoa. "L.A. can be tough, but it's also a City of Angels," and he was picked up by some angels that got him off the streets and sober. He closed by saying, "We're all broken, we're all holy, and the way to heal is together. That's why I'm in." O.k., Bonin. Thank you. We're gonna hold you to it.
There was a musical interlude by a trio of young people from The Healing Arts Program at S.P.Y. They called themselves "Denim On Denim" and sang/rapped a song about letting the music take control. "Let's hear it for Venice!" they shouted at its end, and we cheered them on. The guy in the group said, "L.A. is the fast lane, let's do it faster!" Yes. Let's. It always bugs me when government entities say things like "By the year 2025, we'll do whatever." No. Let's do it NOW.
Mahalia Jean-Pierre is a young mother and singer-songwriter who lived on the beach in a tent with her one year old baby after leaving a domestic violence situation. "But I always saw myself in my dreams." It was again St. Joseph's to the rescue, who found her and her child a hotel room. While hopping from bug-infested motel to motel, Jean-Pierre was also pursuing her musical dreams and performing for thousands at the WNBA Finals at Staples Center. No one would have dreamed that she was dealing with homelessness on the side. When she finally drove down VICTORY Boulevard to her own apartment, she felt exactly that. Victory. Which compelled her to want to help others, to encourage them to follow their own dreams, and to help others do both of those things. She is succeeding at all of the above, and we cheered her on for it.
Shearer came back up and said, "She used that magic word, 'Community' ... it means getting involved." Which is what I write in basically every story about Venice I ever do. Because it's true, and SO needed, especially now, when we're dealing with a homeless crisis like never before. Get. Involved.
Daniel Chavez got involved. A native Angeleno, Chavez is a recovering addict currently living in downtown L.A.'s Mission shelter. Drugs and violence got him kicked out of his family home, and he found himself living on the streets with nothing. Fighting almost landed him in prison, but they gave him a substance abuse program instead. He began working with the Venice YouthBuild program, helping store homeless peoples' personal items. He didn't want that to be him again, and has now managed to stay clean and sober for a year and 9 months. He asked that we support these super important organizations, and drew cheers when he said on the way to this event he found out that he got an apartment that he can move into today! Out of the Mission! I choked up, and I was not alone. These are the stories that change perceptions, and spur others into action. (I hope).
"When I found Venice, I was in love." So said Sue Gallagher about her arrival into Venice from Chicago three decades ago. She lived happily among the artists and hippies until her landlord (all these jerk landlords, Come ON!) decided to mow down her apartment to turn into a parking lot. Great. Without affordable housing nearby, she became homeless, living on the streets around UCLA among a bunch of other homeless women. She kept telling herself, "This is only temporary." and kept her faith. "Homelessness is a 24 hour gig," she explained, finding shelter, food, and staying safe. She somehow managed to stay sober on the streets, and a psychiatrist from Venice Family Clinic helped her get into affordable housing in East L.A. Not Venice, because we're still working on landlords being cool here. I hope she gets to return one day soon ... and I hope I can stay. "Have some kindness and empathy. We ALL need your help," Gallagher closed with. Yes. PLEASE.
United Way CEO, Elise Buik, explained that homelessness is a core priority of the United Way, and they'll be doing #EveryoneIn events like this all over the city. "I used to spend my single days at The Brig, so this is full circle," she said, cracking everyone up. She explained that, "The only way we can transform lives is by being all in."
Buik thanked all the great organizations that are truly on the frontline of this crisis: St. Joseph's. S.P.Y. Venice Community Housing. She thanked our gracious hosts, David Paris and Nancy Cohen.
She thanked the storytellers for inspiring us all. She thanked us all for being there (though we are the choir they were preaching to. We need the less involved people to hear - and care about - these stories). She hoped that we'd been moved (we WERE. Several people had been in tears, I know I was). Then Buik asked is we could all commit to do three things: 1) Join the "Everyone In" movement - Done. 2) Take a step to help someone - Of course. 3) We have millions set aside for housing the homeless, but whenever it comes time to do something about it, the NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard people) come out to protest. It's time to say YES, we'd love any of these formerly homeless storytellers to be our neighbors. They are wonderful people, who had just fallen on hard luck, as could happen to any of us (and has). I've mixed it up with people who have said they don't want their kids going by homeless housing on the way to the beach ... but they'd rather have their kids see them sleeping outside on the sidewalks? What lesson is that teaching our future leaders? It's disgusting. As Shearer closed by saying, "Let's change it to YIMBYs!" Yes.
I use this quote all the time, and always will ... "
Remember your humanity and forget the rest." - The Russell-Einstein Manifesto