During COVID-19, unhoused in LA’s Skid Row find a home at Urban Voices Project
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Coronavirus cases are 'skyrocketing' in LA

During COVID-19, unhoused in LA’s Skid Row find a home at Urban Voices Project

Music teacher Leeav Sofer’s community choir, a hit since 2013, continues to give members a creative outlet with online sessions and care packages even if they can’t meet in person

  • Leeav Sofer, center-right, with fellow choir members at a practice of the Urban Voices Project. (Courtesy UVP)
    Leeav Sofer, center-right, with fellow choir members at a practice of the Urban Voices Project. (Courtesy UVP)
  • Volunteers with the Skid Row Arts Alliance put together arts care packages. (William Warrener)
    Volunteers with the Skid Row Arts Alliance put together arts care packages. (William Warrener)
  • Leeav Sofer sings a few bars at a practice of the Urban Voices Project. (Courtesy UVP)
    Leeav Sofer sings a few bars at a practice of the Urban Voices Project. (Courtesy UVP)

LOS ANGELES — Musician Leeav Sofer believes in the healing power of music and community. Crammed between a white IKEA desk, an industrial-style black floor lamp, and a brown piano, the 30-year-old son of a cantor welcomed viewers to his online Neighborhood Sing workshop on a Wednesday afternoon in early June.

“I hope you came to take your musical medicine,” Sofer said. Once a week since California went into coronavirus lockdown on March 19, participants sing together via Zoom and Facebook.

And it appears the endeavor will remain online for the foreseeable future: This week California marked over 420,000 known COVID-19 infections and cases in Los Angeles are “skyrocketing,” according to The New York Times. Although the city has slowly opened up, Los Angeles Mayor Eric M. Garcetti has warned that new shelter at home orders may be on the horizon.

“California has surpassed New York to have the most recorded cases of any state, and it set a single-day record on Wednesday [July 22] with more than 12,100 new cases and 155 new deaths,” writes The New York Times.

Sofer, a burly multi-instrumentalist who often wears his long brown hair in a man-bun, is cofounder and artistic director of the Urban Voices Project (UVP), a Skid Row community choir. The neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles covers just 50 city blocks, yet is home to the second-largest homeless population in the United States.

The choir began as a short-term community outreach project by the Colburn School, a renowned music and dance conservatory in downtown LA where Sofer teaches. A professor asked for suggestions, and Sofer said “singing seems like a good idea.”

Only 23 at the time, he teamed up with Christopher Mack, a community outreach worker with the Wesley Community Health Clinic, and the pair recruited enough singers to perform at Wesley’s annual gala in October 2014. The concert was a huge success, and the musicians and Sofer committed to continuing.

The choir is still based at the community clinic, and is comprised of singers who are currently experiencing homelessness, as well as their allies.

Because the choir operates out of a health clinic, UVP has no plans to resume in-person rehearsals or classes anytime soon.

“We are working with a vulnerable population,” says Nicole Wallens, UVP’s executive director. “And we sing, which is a super-spreader activity.”

Arts are a lifeline

Activities such as singing, acting, and painting provide structure, skill training, and a sense of self-worth and community to marginalized and destitute individuals in Skid Row. Choir member and writer Tom Grode recalled the moment Sofer broke the news at the end of February that UVP canceled all in-person gatherings. “Some people were just distraught,” Grode says. “For many, the arts are their lifeline.”

Tom Grode is a freelance writer and member of the Urban Voices Project cofounded by Leeav Sofer. (Courtesy UVP)

UVP and other providers of artistic programs to Skid Row residents — such as the Los Angeles Poverty Department, Street Symphony, Piece by Piece, and Studio 526 — form the Skid Row Arts Alliance. The group coordinates activities and problem-solves together. One of the results of this cooperation is the website Skid Row Arts TV Guide, which shows all the upcoming online workshops and classes at a glance.

Providing virtual programming for a vulnerable and older population, UVP and others learned, comes with two main challenges: tech illiteracy and a lack of internet access. Freelance writer Grode, for example, had never participated in a Zoom meeting before. “I barely knew what it was, and now I spend the whole day on it,” says the 63-year-old.

Volunteers with the Skid Row Arts Alliance put together arts care packages. (Courtesy UVP)

Some Skid Row artists, however, aren’t taking advantage of the virtual offerings. For the first few weeks, only half of the 20 or so regular participants came to the online version of Neighborhood Sing. With disenfranchised artists in mind, the Skid Row Arts Alliance distributed arts care packages.

The padded Manila envelopes contained arts and crafts supplies such as a sketchbook and pencils, an 18-page zine with program descriptions and original writing by Grode, a face mask, and a set of in-ear headphones.

“The care package is a way to let people keep doing the arts physically, to help stave off isolation and depression, and keep people connected to their community,” Sofer says.

Financial and logistical support came from Arts in Action, a community engagement program at the University of Southern California. Care package recipients with a valid address received their envelope in the mail. Unhoused artists picked up theirs from Skid Row resident and activist Stephanie Williams’ tent — dubbed the White House — on the corner of East 5th and San Pedro.

How can you shelter at home when you don’t have one?

The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated a situation that was already difficult for Skid Row residents. A handful of UVP members didn’t have a home to stay in when California’s Safer at Home order took effect. One singer, whose name Sofer withheld to protect the man’s identity, slept on a park bench in Elysian Park near Dodger Stadium.

Sofer felt powerless.

Leeav Sofer co-founded the Urban Voices Project. (Courtesy UVP)

“It was so frustrating to read and hear about all these programs, but when someone is on the street, they have nowhere to go,” he says.

After two-and-a-half weeks of making calls and reaching dead ends, Sofer helped the man move into one of the coveted Project Room Key hotel rooms. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) oversees 3,200 such accommodations for homeless individuals and families in the high-risk category for COVID-19 due to age or pre-existing conditions.

Sofer, who regularly rocks synagogues in LA and beyond with his klezmer-folk band Mostly Kosher, chronicled his quest for information about open shelter beds in a Facebook rant that went semi-viral in April. As has happened often in his life, members of the Jewish community were among the first to hear his cry.

“I got to speak to hundreds, maybe thousands of people about our work from the platform the Jewish community provided me,” Sofer says.

In times of coronavirus, his community came through in a different, virtual way, and invited him to podcasts and Zoom forums to discuss the situation on Skid Row.

“I will forever be grateful for that,” says Sofer.

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