Starting late last year, a group of writers met with 12 people who had experienced homelessness, and crafted monologues based on interviews with these individuals. Those monologues have been performed from April 13-20 by nearly 300 actors in more than 20 productions across the city.
The project has an ambitious intent: convincing the community to commit to ending homelessness. All of the proceeds from the project will go to the Midnight Mission, who helped find the storytellers. This is Homeward LA's first year but they plan to continue the project.
Jason Lesner is the founder and project director of Homeward LA. We met with him recently to discuss his project and the homeless crisis in Los Angeles.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Better Lemons:You have been saying that you don't want the cliched homeless story, the downer – can you explain what you mean?
Jason Lesner: It's not that I don't want that story, if that's what someone's story is, than that's great. I just think that's not the only story and that seems to be the story everyone thinks of when they think of the homeless. In the show, there are sad stories and there are stories where it's hard to tell whether you should feel sad or not sad about it. I think there's all sorts of things.
BL: But you're not trying to have the producers do the show in one specific way – they have leeway to interpret the material.
JL: This is what I said to the producers overall – I'm not going to micromanage your productions. Here is the piece, they can even change the order of the monologues. I've allowed them to do that and they can really envision it for what they want.
The one thing I did insist on is to not dress people as "homeless" people because again that's a cliche, and it's not even necessarily who these people are, and whose stories they are. And I think when I said that almost everyone who was involved in it said of course. In general, there is a bigger note in me even saying that, which is to avoid the cliche. My advice to all of the producers was for this show to work or not work comes ultimately down to the performances and the pieces themselves. If the pieces don't work, there's nothing you can do.
BL: Are you afraid of that homeless cliche because if I'm an audience member and I come in with certain expectations – like this is what a homeless person is and this is what they look like, and then those expectations are confirmed, then it only reinforces what I already believe and doesn't challenge me?
JL: I think that's part of the reason. I think a lot of people will walk in with a cliched idea of what homeless means, and anyone, you say homeless and some vision comes in their mind. I wanted to create a piece that humanized people who are homeless and showed that homeless people are much bigger than their homelessness, that that doesn't define them. I also just think from a sheer theatre standpoint...playing into those cliches is just not very interesting and inaccurate. Horribly inaccurate. What it means to be homeless is such an array of different things and then of course there are different life experiences that are vast. I wanted to portray as much of that as we possibly can.
BL: How did the project begin?
JL: I worked at LA Family Housing and I did community and corporate engagement there. It just came to me at some point that non-profits and the government...do amazing work and try very hard and are filled with caring people, but I realized unless the community buys into this, I don't think were going to really solve the problem.
I was just thinking about something the other day-when I worked on homelessness, there were action plans created and goals set for ending homelessness – there was a goal to end veteran homelessness within a year and chronic homelessness in 2 years. And I was inspired, I thought that was amazing, we're going to end this thing. But one of the problems we ran into is that it just lived in world of government and non-profits. I think somewhere we failed in achieving that goal was we didn't engage the community. If you can really engage the community in ending homelessness, you can increase your chances enormously.
BL: Define what engaging the community means – what will people do once they are engaged?
JL: I think it is being aware, taking action, letting their representatives know that this is important to them. They are volunteering, they're donating money and they are being vocal. It just needs to be a certain mass of people who are active and caring. This is a hard issue and it takes a deep commitment and there is going to be trial and error. We know that we increased how many people were housed from 2016 to 2017, yet homelessness went up. I don't think we should look as things like that as failures, but as learning opportunities.
BL: Do you think we're setting ourselves up for failure when we say something like "we're going to end chronic homelessness in two years?"
JL: I think unless you have a plan of what that is going to look like than we are setting ourselves up. I think we should really define how that happens. When I worked in the non-profit sector as a manager, I always said that I believe in ambitious yet realistic goals. All that realism means is that you have a theory of here's what needs to be put in place and here's how it happens. and you really map that out.
BL: Homelessness is everywhere in Los Angeles – conditions on Skid Row have gotten worse, there are tents underneath freeways. Is it really a question of awareness? People have to be seeing it.
JL: I've gotten more away from the word awareness because of the reasons you just said, and I've been working on focusing attention on homelessness. We want Homeward LA to be a rallying cry for the community. It's more those things than it's about awareness, because you're right, we are all aware of it.
BL: People aren't oblivious to the problem, and I think a lot of them want to help, but it's just so overwhelming. How do we get from that feeling of being overwhelmed by the problem, and instead start feeling that we can help end homelessness?
JL: I have many days where I think why am I doing Homeward LA, and I have many days where I think the problem is too big. I think it's normal to have those doubts. I'm not looking to alleviate people's doubts. The problem is growing, it's really coming to a critical mass where we're going to have to deal with it, whether it's today, or in a year, or in five years. It's going to hit that point. As people grow and care more deeply, the doubts will become less and less cause they'll see more people working toward the goal. Doubt is part of the human condition and it's something for us to contend with always. I don't expect to do anything like this without having sincere moments of doubt. It's just normal (to feel that way)
Our nature is we have logical minds and it's great for strategy, but we also need a good doze of idealism and dreaming as well. You won't even think to end homelessness if you don't have that there too. Anyone who has a vision of ending homelessness should be at the table no matter if they have loads of doubt or whatever point of view they have or what political party they belong to. It will take everyone coming together to figure it out.
BL: The project started over 18 months ago – was Midnight Mission involved from the beginning and were there other groups that you considered working with?
JL: I was dealing with different organizations before Midnight Mission. This was a new project and it wasn't a small project. And for the Midnight Mission, an organization that doesn't know me, it was a leap of faith on their part, so quite frankly, part of it was that they took the leap. I was thinking of doing this the first year with multiple organizations and I'm glad we ended up doing it with just one – cause just being its first year doing it, it made it a lot easier.
BL: Did Midnight Mission find the people you're basing the stories on?
I just talked to them about what we were looking for in very general terms and they [Midnight Mission] chose the individuals. They just put it out there to individuals who were interested in doing it.
BL: Were these people still involved in the programs at the Midnight Mission?
JL Some people were alums of the program and some people were still in it. It was no one on the streets right now – and I think realistically for this project, cause the writing process went on for so long, that to do this with someone who is presently out on the streets would probably be difficult. It could be hard to guarantee that after the first meeting you're going to hear from that person again. We knew doing this that there needed to be some consistency.
BL: What were some of the challenges?
People not showing up for their writing meetings. One person who dropped out. We went out with 13 people and I thought we'd have more drop out, but in the end we only had one drop out.
BL:Describe the writing process.
JL: Last October, we set a weekend where half of the storytellers and half of the writers came on one day and half on the other. I met with them, told them what the project was. The writers toured the Mission, then we sat down with the storytellers and did some exercises around story.
I didn't necessarily want all their stories to be about homelessness, I just wanted them to share stories from their lives. They seemed to really connect with the idea that we wanted to show that individuals who experience homelessness were more than being homeless. I told them I'm not necessarily asking you to share your deepest darkest story. I wanted them to tell the stories they wanted to share – it could be funny, it could be anything.
I watched everyone and saw who would work well together and partnered different writers with storytellers. I asked them to make a meeting with each other. First meeting they were asked to just talk and come up with 3 to 4 story ideas. Almost everyone met that first week and came up with stories, and then all of the writers met at one of the writer's houses and talked about all the stories that we had gathered, and then we chose the stories. Then they met individually for probably months. The idea was they would meet once a week. Some did, some met more sporadically. Writers would meet with the storyteller, come up with a draft, and I might give them some notes. Interviewing and then draft and interviewing and then draft to keep honing in on what that story was.
BL: Did you consider having the storytellers perform their own monologues instead of actors?
JL: We had a conversation around that. There's a number of reasons why we didn't go that way. I would say that structure and the very model of doing multiple productions of the same piece – we obviously couldn't have them be in all the places – but also many of them are still...very vulnerable.
It's possible but it's a tricky thing. The Midnight Mission and I had conversations about this very topic, and we decided certainly for this very first year that we weren't going to do it. Cause there are so many things to consider in doing that – let's say it doesn't work out; for someone who is in a vulnerable place, that can be a horrifying experience.
I have film program I do with foster youth and we use actors for that as well. I think there is something about telling your story...and then witnessing your story from someone else. I think getting to see your story from the outside is a very interesting and maybe healing experience.
BL: How do we get the audience, who when they're sitting in the theatre are profoundly moved by what they see, but when they leave and get caught up in everything else that is going on – the power of the story dissipates. How do you keep people from forgetting?
JL: That's the thing – you're trying to create a snowball effect and you're trying to make a cultural shift. If you're just talking about an individual, but for anyone, any emotional experience is going to dissipate and they'll go back to their normal life – it's whether you affect the culture. This first year in doing 26 productions, is that going to affect the culture? Maybe not, it might have a smaller impact, but where does it go from there, as an annual thing, growing every year, is that enough? One of the actors brought up the idea of getting celebrities to do monologues online and do them that way. It being the first year I have my vision of where I'd like it to go – but I also try to keep an open mind of where it can go. If it starts to get attention, then to me it's whatever helps it to grow and grow. Ultimately none of this happens unless we make a cultural shift; achieve a critical mass.
BL: When someone says, oh these agencies and charities are using images of suffering to raise money for themselves – have you heard people say that and what has been your response?
JL: I have responded to people who have said this. This is my feeling on it: I think we all can understand the best way an organization can promote their organization is by people who benefitted from the organization. My experience is that if the organization is making it okay for the person to say no if they're not interested, than I think it's fine. These are adults and we should give people the respect as adults to make adult decisions. If someone is asked would you be willing to speak on behalf of this organization you benefitted form, I think we should trust that individual can make a decision for themselves. Only an organization if they're being manipulative or if they putting pressure on that person or not – and I personally think if you are putting pressure on someone than it is not right – and certainly if you were holding their services over their head, then that would be terrible, but I've never seen that happen. There something a little insulting--to say you're better than that person to make a decision for themselves. It doesn't feel right to me, I think it's unempowering.
We talk about the meaning of even the smallest acts of compassion.
JL: I remember when I worked at LA Family Housing, and I was surprised by it actually. We had groups come in and they would service in the kitchen – it seemed to mean a lot to people in the shelter that groups would come and serve. And I wasn't always sure why cause there wasn't a load of interaction necessarily happening, they were just serving the food, but people always seemed really grateful about it – I believe it was that it reminded the people in the shelter that there is a community out there that cared about them. Any action like that is meaningful – maybe it's not going to solve the problem, but I think any compassionate kind act is a meaningful act and it should be done. What I'm trying to do with this project is raise the level of compassion--we only benefit if we just learn to be more compassionate.
BL: And be compassionate even if things like handing out bottles of water or feeding people at a mission, those seem like small things that might not solve the problem--
JL: Well, who knows? I used to give money to every homeless person I came across many years ago, and then I hit a point when I said I don't know that I'm helping people by doing that, and then I didn't give very often. And now sometimes I do and sometimes I don't – but I will never say that giving someone a dollar isn't going to help. I'm not going to say what act of kindness is going to be the thing or not the thing that is going to spark something for that individual. I just think there isn't any way for us to know. I just think we'd all be better off if we just learned to be more compassionate with each other and more understanding, and not just with someone who is homeless, but all of us.