Urban sage Christopher Mack
Urban sage Christopher Mack
Danny Liao

Christopher Mack Wants to Change the Conversation Around Homelessness

"If anybody ever tells you that they are an expert in homelessness, run!" cautions Christopher Mack, community outreach worker with the Wesley Community Health Clinic on L.A.'s Skid Row.

Armed with a clipboard and an encyclopedic knowledge of available services, Mack, 65, traverses the tent- and garbage-littered streets, looking for people who need help.

Friends and admirers call the lanky 6-foot-2 Mack, who always wears his Tilley — a hat that floats on water and comes with a four-page owner's manual — an urban sage. An artist painted a portrait of him for the Skid Row History Museum & Archive on Broadway.

He began working on Skid Row in early February 2003. When Mack celebrated three years of sobriety, his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor called and asked if he wanted a job doing HIV surveys. "I had to find out whether the men were having sex with women or men or both and whether they were using needles," he recalls.

A child of the '60s, Mack says his life derailed in 1979 when he "started using heavily." In 1994 he was convicted for possession of a controlled substance and spent two years in prison.

He sobered up at the Rena B Recovery Center on Burns Avenue almost 20 years later.

The L.A. native took computer courses at local trade schools and did data processing at MasterCharge (before it became MasterCard) in the late '70s. After that he worked for U.S. Bancorp in Century City for a while and then did odd jobs until he began working on Skid Row.

Adjusting to Skid Row was difficult. "I cried for two years. From 2003 to 2005, I cried every day," he recalls. "To see people in these conditions is painful."

Then clients began to tell him about their small victories, like a job lead or a place to stay. "I stopped seeing people as just dying, I saw them rise and take care of themselves — that's resilience," he says.

Mack grew up at 50th and Figueroa near the USC Coliseum, one of 11 children. His single mother worked as a security guard. Nine of his siblings are still alive, most of them settled in or near L.A. Two sisters live in Hawaii.

He had one son, who died last year. "I have seen life," he says.

In his 15 years on Skid Row, he has seen various efforts to alleviate the homeless crisis. "Four walls and a roof is not just a thing but the individual taking pride in his life — how do we begin that conversation?" he asks.

Mack thinks apathy and disenfranchisement are to blame. Housing people by itself won't cut it.

"That's why we keep getting this thing wrong — we have to help a person move from that 'I don't care' condition to 'Wait a minute, I'm something good,'?" he says.

Home, he argues, is more than a physical address. "It's a place inside that a person identifies with and that makes him feel good about himself. It gives him the heart of a lion, the courage of a champion."

Together with Leeav Sofer, a faculty member at the Colburn School and frontman of modern Jewish folk band Mostly Kosher, Mack founded the Urban Voices Project, a community choir on Skid Row. "We are trying to sing so other people can have a better feeling about themselves," he says.

If there is such a thing, Christopher Mack is an expert in homelessness.

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