Less than half an hour away from the suburbs where movie stars and moguls park their lamborghinis and dine on $200 sushi lunches, another LA story unfolds.
Spread across 53 blocks of downtown Los Angeles, approximately 5000 people – some 13 per cent of the 36,300 homeless in LA – make their home on Skid Row. The term, for a rundown part of town home to vagrants, addicts, the despairing and the desperate, isn't just a figure of speech; it's a real place which has existed in LA since the 1880s.
Of its current residents, some live in dilapidated buildings converted into shelters; others make their homes in tents on the footpaths. Since 1981, the Union Rescue Mission has run a Christian shelter for the homeless – the largest private one in the US – with its chief executive Andy Bales describing Skid Row as "the worst manmade disaster in the US."
Given this, it's hardly surprising that Skid Row does not feature on the itineraries of many LA tourists but this month a small team of visitors from New Zealand are there. Professor Peter O'Connor, from the University of Auckland's Creative Thinking Project, and author/film-maker Justin Brown left for Los Angeles this week to collaborate with arts organisations working on Skid Row.
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These include the LAPD - Los Angeles Poverty Department - the Skid Row Housing Trust, Urban Voices, Piece by Piece Mosaic arts and My Friends Place who will help O'Connor make a show with a handful of residents while Brown films the process for a possible documentary.
O'Connor describes the project as being about hope and resilience in the face of poverty and despair - made all the more incongruous given that LA is one of the richest cities on Earth in California, a US state with an economy larger than most countries.
Arts organisations have long worked alongside social agencies to improve the lot of those on Skid Row. The area has its own art festivals and exhibitions and a register, started by the LAPD, to record the names and skills of artists who live there. That register has 700 names on it.
O'Connor, who has spent 40 years making theatre in natural disaster zones, prisons, psychiatric hospitals, refugee camps and schools, says the 12-day project is about transporting a handful of Skid Row's residents out of grim reality even if just for a moment or two. He says it's not about permanently transforming lives or solving homelessness.
"The real solution to this is not the arts but, in the meantime, we are trying to add some joy to lives."
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O'Connor was most recently part of the team who helped to make the award-winning That's What Friends Are For led by Auckland's Hobson Street Theatre Company, the country's only theatre company for people who are, or have been, homeless. It was through this project that he was invited to LA.
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Despite his background, O'Connor says seeing Skid Row, on a preliminary visit before starting his residency at The Museum of Contemporary Arts, left him shocked and distressed. He likens it to a war zone and says he saw families living in tents and the parents getting up, sending children to school and going to work themselves but still unable to find or afford better housing.
"There are hardly any sanitation facilities – there used to be, but gangsters started charging the homeless to use them so the Porta-Potties – like our Portaloos – were removed. People go in buckets which they empty onto the street or just the street itself. The smell is quite confronting.
"I couldn't exist like that in a land of plenty; I'd want something to make life a bit more bearable. If you live in extreme poverty in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, the arts are vital for survival because they make you and your story visible and who you are as a human visible."
He says he'll know that it's been successful if all involved enjoy making the work, become friends and the outsiders who see the show will look beyond a person's appearance and situation to see "the beauty and capacity and glory of those who live on the streets."
From Thursday, November 7, St Matthew in the City holds a Christmas exhibition of art made by those from Auckland City Mission's art, clay and carving clubs. The exhibition runs until Wednesday, November 13.