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What's It Like to Go to an Open Mic Night...on Skid Row?

Volunteer Ken Perry accompanies performers
Volunteer Ken Perry accompanies performers
Gabrielle Canon

It is midday last Thursday and Georgia Berkovich is rushing to ready the Day Room of the Midnight Mission, where she works as the community relations manager. L.A. musician Ken Perry tunes a guitar before accompanying a man wearing a reflective vest, as he sings "Dead or Alive" to a room-full of empty blue plastic chairs. "That's my shit right there," a man in a beanie mutters as he passes through the room.

A few more people trickle in through a door that opens to an outside patio. There, brightly colored tents, sleeping bags and tarps contrast the dark clouds hanging over the downtown Los Angeles high-rise horizon. With heat lamps blazing, this warmed courtyard provides refuge for homeless people who reside on Skid Row.

The event planned for the day is an open mic and participants are free to perform just about anything. Most decide on music, while some showcase their poetic or comedic talents.

Berkovich says it is one of the Mission's most popular events. It calls on this community to be both entertainer and entertained. "I also try to get the staff to perform so it is not 'us' and 'them,' it is just 'us,'" she says gesturing in a circular motion.

The Midnight Mission, located in downtown L.A. on 6th and San Pedro Streets, provides necessities to the thousands of people living on the streets of Los Angeles. Beyond the 90,000 meals they give out each month, the nondenominational center offers job training, a 12-step live-in facility for men trying to get sober, a library, computer lab and a barbershop, along with other basics like bathrooms and showers that are hard to come by in the area.

"We got it if you need it" says Ryan Navales, the public affairs coordinator. "It is just up to your willingness to come get it. That is the hardest part about getting off the street."

Navales speaks from experience. Just 18 months ago he was homeless. "I am an alcoholic and drug addict, and I came here looking for help -- and I got it," he says. "What I am today is not what I expected then."

He is one of the first to take the mic to sing for the now half-full room. By the time he finishes, seats have been filled. As the next few performers go up the entryways become clogged as observers hover near doorways to take part in the event.

Respectful applause is soon replaced with cheering, shouting and loud clapping as the event continues. The diverse crowd is feeling the growing energy.

"I liken it to throwing a kids birthday party," Navales say. "You invite all these people and that first ten minutes when you don't know if anyone is going to show up, there is this nervous energy. Then -- BOOM. Everybody hears and it just takes off and just takes on its own personality."

A performer who calls himself "Sly" sings for the crowd
A performer who calls himself "Sly" sings for the crowd
Gabrielle Canon

Performers are bound only by the expectation that they won't use profanity. Other than that they are free to do whatever they feel like. Some singers were accompanied by volunteer Ken Perry, others went solo. One man, part of the Mission staff, read a short story. There was beat boxing, rapping, dancing, standup comedy, a harmonica and a tambourine. No matter what happened up there, though, the crowd went wild -- they sang and clapped along to upbeat performances, and sat in silent solidarity for the reflective pieces.

Many performed written works that centered on the homeless experience, drug abuse and the hardships of living in downtown LA. "When I was homeless and had no place to go, I was inspired to write this poem," a man introduced as Ernest says as he takes the mic. In rhyme and metaphor he recounts his journey to seek help:

In my foxhole the enemy I find,

It's hand-to-hand contact, his life or mine,

I looked into his eyes and what did I see?

But the image of myself -- the enemy was me.

Without accompaniment a singer leaves the audience in stunned silence belting "A Change Is Gonna Come." Silence in the room is only broken when affirmations like "That's right!" or "sing it!" are shouted in moments of pause.

Comedian Elzie Alexander takes the floor and quips about how the words used to describe going to jail change based on the crime committed. "If they catch you forging checks, you goin to the pen. If they catch you taking marijuana, they send you to the joint. If they catch you doing crack cocaine, you doin time on the rock." The audience, some who might have heard the bit, call out the punchline with delight before he finishes. He then transitions into an precisely mimicked Louis Armstrong voice, with which he sings his own rendition: "What a dangerous world it can be."

This event and others like it, offered regularly at Midnight Mission, are arranged with the hope that the barriers that stop homeless people from seeking help are broken down. Navales says that those who have spent time on the streets feel estranged from society, a sentiment that is often returned by those who walk past them.

"Homelessness is often used like a noun. It is 'The homeless'," he says referring to how this population is labeled by the public. "But, they are people. It is an adjective. It is homeless person, homeless woman, homeless man, homeless child. We are human beings." He says he hopes events like this one will help break apart that stigma and humanize this population in the eyes of the community.

"I think this reminds them of their lost hopes and dreams," program participant-turned staff member Dante says of the opportunity to perform. He came into the program as an alcoholic and helped organize the event.

Clad in a suit and tie, Dante performs a Beatles favorite. By then end of the song everyone has joined in and it is apparent that barriers in that moment are nonexistent. One man is shaking a tambourine as the entire room sings and claps in unison: "All you need is love, love. Love is all you need."

The Midnight Mission hosts events on the third Thursday of every month. All are open to the community. Find out more information about how to get involved on their website.

Follow me on Twitter at @Gabriellecanon and for more arts news follow us @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.


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