Skid Row is a place like no other. Spread across a few square blocks in the heart of downtown L.A., many of its roughly 25,000 unsheltered homeless live in tents on the sidewalk.
Blocks away, patrons shop at glitzy stores, dine at fancy restaurants or catch a show at one of downtown's world-famous cultural institutions.
A few years ago the Colburn School, a renowned music and dance conservatory, decided to do something about this paradox. The administration asked around for ideas.
“I raised my hand and said, 'Singing sounds like the most accessible,'?” recalls Leeav Sofer, Colburn faculty member and frontman of Jewish folk band Mostly Kosher.
That's how a burly 23-year-old who often wears his long brown hair in a man bun became co-founder of the Urban Voices Project (UVP), a choir for homeless people and their allies.
UVP was supposed to be a short-term community outreach project. Sofer partnered with Christopher Mack, who works at the John Wesley Community Health Institute. Together they recruited enough people to perform at Wesley's annual gala in October 2014.
The event was a huge success. Sofer realized that folks responded to what he offered in a way he didn't expect. He felt that he couldn't return to his own professional life on Bunker Hill as if nothing had happened.
Sofer looked around and told the singers: “If you show up next week, I show up next week.”
The free professional classes UVP's artistic director offers are similar to those he teaches at Colburn. But over time the choir also became a designated safe space for the Skid Row community to gather.
“They want people to congregate and give them a reason for being that's constructive and positive,” says choir member Vachel McFarland. The slender 63-year-old with youthful energy joined UVP more than a year ago.
McFarland, who hails from Nashville, has experience with homelessness. His life fell apart in 2002 after he got divorced. His ex-wife accused him of domestic violence. He denied the allegations and spent a year in jail.
“I got out of jail with no place to go and nothing but the clothes on my back,” he recalls. He stayed at a Skid Row shelter for a few weeks.
UVP's associate director, Kate Richards Geller, also functions as a music therapy consultant. “I have many years of experience doing group therapy and I know about creating a safe container and allowing people to have their own experiences,” she says.
Richards Geller, 54, a calm and soft-spoken music therapist from New York, joined the choir a couple of years ago. She had no intention of joining the leadership team until Sofer recruited her.
She teaches seminar-style classes that emphasize the positive effects music has on people's lives. During song share, for example, members can convey experiences and feelings through a song that is meaningful to them. But they don't have to. “We never ask,” Richards Geller says. “It's all about the music.”
“Once they are in, they tend to want to seek out other, more professionalized help,” she says. The choir meets at the Wesley Clinic for rehearsals and classes where people can access services.
With her professional training and significant life experience, Richards Geller brings a warm nature that adds a certain sensitivity to the program.
“I know how to run a very good choir rehearsal, but there are people I had to adjust for and didn't have the tools until she came in,” says Sofer, who has the authority of a seasoned choir director and teacher.
Richards Geller observed a rehearsal, for instance, and made Sofer aware of the effect some of his warmup exercises could have on members. “A woman coming off the street looking disheveled, is she somebody who wants to reach her arms up to the sky and then bend down toward the ground?”
Formerly homeless members such as McFarland, who has a degree in music education, and Linda Leigh, are proof that the program works.
“If you stick with it, you'll find that you will start to be more consistent in your life,” Leigh says. The 71-year old became a UVP cornerstone after she began attending sessions in June last year.
In 2014 she headed to Chicago to attend the School of the Arts Institute. She held a yard sale, sold her car and moved. A few days before classes began, an administrator told her that her paperwork was incomplete. Her high school graduation date was missing on her transcript. Leigh returned to L.A.
“I didn't want to have to depend on anyone,” says the marble-haired artist and former yoga teacher from Queens, New York.
She stayed at a shelter for a couple of months and volunteered as a chef.
“When you come down here, one thing that needs to happen is that you have to have a plan and stick to it,” Leigh says. “And don't make it so big that you can't do what you want to do.”
Both Sofer and Richards Geller live downtown, a stone's throw from Skid Row.
“You live in a neighborhood, then you have the neighborhood's problems as well as its positives and you should be active about it,” Sofer says.
Yet they struggle to reconcile the glaring discrepancy between their own lives and the situations many of UVP's members face.
“I sometimes feel a real conflict: 'Am I allowed to have the life that I have knowing that this is going on?'?” Richards Geller says.
When she first began to spend time on Skid Row, she wasn't sure if she could deal with the omnipresent trauma. To cope, she sang while riding her bike from her apartment to the Wesley Clinic.
“I've really never seen this level of human suffering; I needed to sing and process all of what I was feeling and witnessing,” Richards Geller says.
Sofer is now 27 but he comes across as an old soul. He attributes some of his personal growth to his work with UVP. It's also an opportunity to give back.
“I feel very privileged growing up,” he says. “I had a very nice middle-class upbringing, very supportive parents.”
After four years of private fundraising and struggling to find sufficient funds, UVP is becoming a 501(c)3 charitable organization.
The relaunch doesn't focus solely on structure but also on programming. Long-standing members can receive training to become facilitators and instructors. This will enable UVP to spread to other pockets of homelessness in the county and beyond.
Sofer and Richards Geller recognize that some people can't or don't want to deal with the stress of joining a quasi-professional choir. Their lives are complicated enough.
Therefore, UVP will split into two groups: one choir for casual singers with occasional and limited performances centered around the healing potential of music; and a chamber group, which will perform more frequently and at bigger venues so members can earn extra income through UVP.
UVP will start recruiting singers this month. Plans for a spring concert are in the works.
For more information, go to urbanvoicesproject.com.