By Darlene Donloe
LOS ANGELES — In the heart of Skid Row, there is a group of unhoused people singing their hearts out to inspire a movement to heal homelessness.
The group is part of the Urban Voice Project, an organization designed to amplify artistic expression through the healing power of music to improve well-being, strengthen social networks and inspire individuals marginalized by homelessness to be their own best advocates.
The brainchild of co-founders Christopher Mack (community outreach consultant and staff member of Wesley Clinic) and Leeav Sofer (artistic director), the Urban Voice Project, set to celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2024, has a vision to place music and singing community spaces in every medical and social service site across Los Angeles.
“Music is healing and it’s important to our health,” Sofer said. “We humanize homelessness with music. Music is a humanizing universal language. We see them as artists not homeless. It’s not about us and them.”
Soon after the project launched, it grew from five to more than 20 members.
Since becoming a nonprofit in 2018, the project now has 425 participants, and 275 annual programs and attracts an audience of 12,000 each year.
Urban Voice Project will host “A Holiday Called Home: A Skid Row Community Celebration,” from noon to 4 p.m. Dec. 16 at Inner-City Arts, 720 Kohler St., Los Angeles. A donation of $20 is suggested.
There will be free food, music classes, sign language, health services, an open mic, smoothies and a village of crafts. Activities also will include a drum circle, sound bath, ukulele workshop, crafts for kids and an event-closing sing-along.
Arts activities include personalized poetry, puppet making, ornament making and a blessing tree. Parking is free. Skid-Row-based visual artists also will show their work in an art gallery.
Sofer, 33, a Fullerton native who earned a performance degree in clarinet and voice from Long Beach State University, is currently a faculty member at Colburn School where he teaches classes and directs choirs and community engagement programs.
In addition to co-founding Los Angeles’ only current Jewish Youth Orchestra, Leeav also leads the band Mostly Kosher, dedicated to preserving and progressing the cultural folk music of the Judaic heritage.
I recently spoke to Sofer about his work at Urban Voice Project and its upcoming holiday event.
DD: Why did you start the Urban Voice Project?
LS: It was a kind of journey to find a way to do art, not just for art’s sake. I was working at the Colburn School. It’s six blocks away from Skid Row, the epicenter of homelessness. I always wanted to do art for something’s sake. I didn’t want to just be a music educator.
DD: How did you get started?
LS: All of this came from a naïve place. I needed to have people from inside the community to do this authentically. We went to the health center. Christopher Mack (co-founder) was there. He can go anywhere on Skid Row. Everyone knows him. He loved to sing. He would sing at the top of his lungs. His nickname was “The Urban Sage.” He and I decided to just team up. He said, “You bring the music, I’ll bring the people.” We were funded for eight weeks by Colburn and the health clinic.
DD: So did Christopher recruit people who could sing?
LS: Some of the people he brought were beginners and some had experience in music and needed an outlet to revisit their artistry.
DD: Talk about some of the performances.
SL: We’ve performed in several places and we’ve performed with people like Ben Vereen, Coldplay, Bootsie Collins and Dick Van Dyke.
DD: What kind of music do you sing?
LS: We are inclusive. We’ll do gospel, Motown, Spanish and secular music from musical theater. We do classic American songs and modern folk songs.
DD: This program gives voice to Skid Row’s homeless or unhoused. What is it we need to hear them say?
LS: This program serves different phases of homelessness. Sometimes people don’t want to come in for social services but will come in for an art program. Bonding through trauma is not good. Seeing the person as an artist is empowering. Our program does a great job seeing the person not for their trauma but for their potential and for the voice they can have. We need to see people first as people. When you believe in yourself, you self-advocate better. You asked what we need to hear. We need to hear the human artistry in every voice before the trauma.
DD: When you look at the homeless or unhoused, what do you see?
LS: I always see a man or a woman. Typically I see someone I’m happy to have a conversation with. I tell people, if you have the time, stop and say hello. Every man and woman should be left with their dignity. Ask them if they know where the nearest social services center is, or a shelter. If not, Google it for them and give them the address.
DD: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the homeless?
LS: So many people in this capitalistic world think the homeless did something to deserve it. Drugs, alcohol, crime — I think there is a big population that understands that if I don’t get a paycheck next month — this is me. We underestimate that our country doesn’t have a safety net. There are programs to help but only “after” the damage is done. There is no system protecting you. You are in a “no man’s land.” It’s so hard to watch. It seems to be OK if someone does drugs behind closed doors. You can have a cocaine problem behind closed doors in Beverly Hills. But if you have that same problem on the street — out in the open — you are dehumanized and vilified.
DD: Do you have to be homeless to participate in the choir?
LS: We are not requiring that but you have to commit to show up. We are an artist healing and activist choir. We have some members who join but don’t have homelessness in their background. They want to help. We are in Skid Row and constantly recruiting. Half the choir is permanently housed.
We’ve had one or two singers do jazz gigs on weekends.
DD: Why should people support this organization?
LS: I want people to know it isn’t a new concept. Music and singing are just as important as housing and employment. It’s growing in the data. When you give someone a sense of purpose, they become advocates for themselves. Imagine having no job and no housing. It’s more work to be homeless than not to be homeless. We, as a society, are always reacting instead of preempting.
DD: Tell me about your upcoming event “A Holiday Called Home: A Skid Row Community Celebration.”
LS: It’s not planned by the staff. It’s planned in tandem with the choir. It’s for the community, by the community. We want the L.A. community to join us. It’s a way to humanize. It’s about everyone taking care of one another. We are expecting between 200-300 in attendance.
DD: In your opinion, why is conquering homelessness such a hard nut to crack?
LS: One, we have to remind ourselves we’ve never had this many people on the streets in history. In the 2020s, we must remind ourselves that we took a long time to get here. Shockingly, we think we can fix it quickly. We have built systems that continually oppress poor people. Let’s talk about the benefits cliff. You get a job and they cut a check that is $1 over what you’re supposed to get and you’ll lose your benefits in 10 days.
DD: What do you want people to know?
LS: We are having a Christmas Caroling Day. Any Los Angeles singers can participate. We want to have a mass caroling on Christmas with a mass choir. We will go around singing at places like the Union Rescue Mission, Downtown Women’s Center and more. You don’t have to audition. It’s purely a fun, non-audition singalong. Just go to our website and sign up.
“The Q&A” is a feature of Wave Newspapers asking provocative or engaging questions of some of L.A.’s newsmakers or celebrities.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.