“It’s easy to have empathy for a child or friend, but to care about those on Skid Row requires a certain kind of non-bias; an ability to look through a damaged exterior into someone’s inner child. To see that they — we — are worthy. … I’ve noticed that people who have really struggled tend to have great character — compassionate, warm, resilient … but you can only see that through interaction, spending time there, making human connections there. You won’t get it just looking out from your car window.” —from Homeward L.A. story by Temple, 51, currently living in transitional housing
Jason Lesner has spent years working for homeless agencies in the nonprofit sector, primarily with foster youth and probation cases. He'd seen enough to realize that the only answer to ending the homeless crisis is to get the community to stand together. “I wanted to create a project that I thought had potential for wide outreach and to inspire people to commit to a city where there is no homelessness,” says the passionate Lesner. “And also we have an amazing theater community in Los Angeles, and people have really not realized what an asset it is.”
Thus Homeward L.A. was born: a 10-day performance event benefiting the Midnight Mission, which has provided shelter and numerous services to the homeless since 1914. Throughout the city, from April 13-22, will be 26 productions performed by hundreds of actors of the same 12 monologues by people who have experienced homelessness. These are not stories about what it's like to be homeless. Rather, each “storyteller” — as Lesner calls them — teamed up with a writer to produce a vivid glimpse into their lives — as son, daughter, parent, student, prisoner, addict, survivor. And what stories they are: raw, honest, heartbreaking and, yes, sometimes quite funny.
Like Greg. Greg — storytellers are only identified by first names — was on his fourth stint in prison when he saw a flyer for ballroom dance lessons. The promise to “learn how to follow before you can lead” caught his attention. “I mean, you walking through a prison, man, with murderers and stuff, and you go, 'Hey! I’m goin’ ballroom dancin’!' That’s just not a good look. So we get to the class, and a bunch of old white ladies looking like grandmas stand up. It was weird,” he writes, working with Lesner. “But then I noticed they brought doughnuts and fresh-baked cookies, and I thought, 'We gonna come here every week.' Miss Colleen, the leader of the group, introduced herself and told us we’d be learning the waltz. I was paired with Miss Barbara. She was tall and thin. And she had like a Beatles haircut, but dyed red. I could tell she was nervous. Truth is, I was nervous too. I’d never danced with a white lady before. I was scared to touch her. I touch her wrong, I might get five more years or something.”
Elias, with writer Kevin Rodriguez, tells the tragic story of his love for his grade-school sweetheart, his “firecracker,” who would later become his wife, and their descent into drugs and violence, with Elias going to prison for manslaughter of the man who beat her. Fireworks and the Fourth of July are key elements of this incredibly moving tale. “What I would like people to take from the story is the reality of it,” says Elias, talking on the phone while on the bus. “To me, it's a sense of loyalty, love, unity, and how love can be real whether it's in a reckless lifestyle.” Elias has been clean and sober for 26 years and works for the Midnight Mission as an addiction counselor intern. “I used to be a taker and never been a giver, and this has given me an opportunity to give back.” Does he have more stories he'd like to share? “I have at least a book and a half,” he laughs.
“I'm most excited by the variety of experiences that we're sharing,” says writer Rodriguez, who’s written for TV’s Notorious. “The effect of all the monologues together is a confrontation with the fact that people who've struggled with homelessness and addiction had childhoods and first loves and layered relationships with their parents and dreams. You realize that sometimes they just didn't have the same support system that other people have, so when they got divorced or developed an addiction or what have you, they ended up losing a place to live. And once you lose your housing, it’s incredibly difficult to get back on your feet.
“We need to hold Mayor Garcetti and the City Council and the Board of Supervisors accountable,” he says. “We've just given them billions of dollars to deal with this issue. So hopefully, Homeward L.A. brings new voices to this conversation — voices that should have been there all along.”
Temple, who worked with writer Emily Finkelstein, tells a touching story of her passion for “grounding,” which she describes as “literally putting the soles of the feet on the ground. It soothes the soul.” When she sat down with Finkelstein, she knew she “wanted to leave people with something impactful.” Temple laughs and says, “I don't think I'm a typical homeless person. I was a licensed real estate agent, and I was a property manager for nine years. I was doing writing and cinema and journalism.” She had an accident and lost her job. “Then I was homeless with four cats. To be homeless is like having the rug ripped out from underneath you. It's hard to be stable — so grounding is one of those things I turn to.”
Temple is articulate and very self-aware and seems cheerful and positive for someone who admits to having been sexually assaulted three times since becoming homeless. She is setting up her website to spread the word on grounding. “Grounding stirs your heart chakra, and when you do service to people it has the same resonance. This is the key to happiness; you can't buy happiness — the only path to happiness is to be of service to someone else.”
Screenwriter Marquita Robinson worked with Tiera on her story about dressing up as Martin Luther King in fifth grade after being bullied by rich white kids. “The collaborative process was unlike any other writing project I've done. Every Saturday for about five weeks, I went to the Mission and met with Tiera. We found a table near the barbershop in the back and would talk for an hour or so about her story,” says Robinson, who writes for Glow and You’re the Worst. “At first, I felt like a journalist, interviewing a subject. Then, when we found the story we wanted to do, I felt more like a therapist, in that I kind of had to ask a lot of deeper, personal questions to get more truth and detail into the piece. Finally, I had to sort of take it over as a writer and decide what parts of the story were important to include, what to get rid of, what emotional moments begged a comedic undercut, etc.
“Tiera and all the other participants are incredible for doing this project, because it involved a certain level of vulnerability and trust to allow someone to ask you all these personal questions and then creatively run with it.”
The compilation of stories may paint a wide swath of backgrounds, but what's most moving is hearing their voices touch on tender, difficult moments everybody has, especially related to childhood and romance. “In my first meeting with all the storytellers and writers, they loved that I wasn't there to ask them about the worst thing that's happened to them,” Lesner says. “We wanted to create a piece that humanized people who have experienced homelessness, so I want people to leave knowing there is so much more to people who are experiencing homelessness than their homelessness. And really the goal for me is to raise the level of compassion in our community. We need to remind ourselves these are individuals who have had lives, and there is so much more than we are seeing.”
Homeward L.A. performances take place April 13-22 at venues citywide, including the Pico Union Project and the Expo Center. A full schedule with actors participating can be found at homewardla.org; tickets are $20.