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With acting troupe, the arts help the homeless

John Malpede (above) is the director of the Los Angeles Poverty Department, which includes a 20-member acting troupe made up primarily of homeless people. Members (below) rehearse. John Malpede (above) is the director of the Los Angeles Poverty Department, which includes a 20-member acting troupe made up primarily of homeless people. Members (below) rehearse. (Photos by kevork djansezian/associated press)
By Christina Hoag
Associated Press / December 22, 2008
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LOS ANGELES - In a city teeming with out-of-work actors, John Malpede bypasses casting agencies and recruits for his performance troupe where other directors would do a double take - Skid Row.

As head of the Los Angeles Poverty Department - the other LAPD - Malpede uses performing art as a tool to prick the public's social conscience about homelessness and other symptoms of chronic poverty.

"This country doesn't have any social policies to prevent people from becoming homeless," he said. "We use people affected by these failed policies to scrutinize those policies. And a lot are really good actors."

LAPD's crusade is not amiss in a city renowned as the home of some of the country's most famous faces and lavish lifestyles, but also as the location of the nation's densest concentration of homeless. Some 5,000 people live on Skid Row - a 50-square-block downtown neighborhood that long ago surrendered to crime and vagrancy - 1,800 of them on the street, the rest in shelters.

The city's pervasive homelessness is increasingly inspiring groups like LAPD, which see the arts as a way to highlight public awareness of a social problem and as a pick-me-up tool for those living hand-to-mouth.

"Homeless people often don't think they can do anything. These programs change one's own perception of what's possible," said Laura Zucker, executive director of the Los Angeles County Commission on the Arts. "We know they help improve people's self-esteem."

Kevin Michael Key is living proof of that effect.

After spending 40 years addicted to heroin and crack cocaine, he found LAPD on Skid Row and has since toured the country and performed in Paris with Malpede. Earlier this year, he landed a small speaking role in the movie "The Soloist," which recounts Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez's friendship with a homeless musician. The movie was partially filmed on Skid Row using locals as nonunion extras.

"It has helped bring to me a new perspective and perception," the 58-year-old Key said. "I used my experience as a basis for expertise. John has encouraged and nurtured that."

Almost 20 arts nonprofits in and around Los Angeles now incorporate homeless people in projects ranging from plays to painting to cinema, but LAPD was a forerunner of the homeless arts initiatives and is the only group that aims to mix art and advocacy.

Some of the works performed by Malpede's 20-member troupe, most of whom are homeless or formerly homeless, seem esoteric, but they attract attention - and that's the point.

In the play "La Llorona" ("The Weeping Woman"), Mexican immigrant women recounted and sung in Spanish their own experiences as battered wives, exploited nannies, and mothers who lost their sons to violence or prison.

In a piece of performance art titled "Glimpse of Utopia," a line of 200 homeless people and art students spent an afternoon swaying in abstract motion like trees along an avenue downtown to symbolize their yearning for more shady green boulevards in the city.

The growing homeless arts movement has spurred the Los Angeles County Commission on the Arts to design a grant program that it says is the only one of its kind in the country. The commission recently granted $18,000 each to five groups to fund creative projects for homeless people. The National Endowment for the Arts provided half the cash, Los Angeles County the other half.

Key said the support he found in LAPD was invaluable in stabilizing his life. He had found a place in a single-room-only hotel on Skid Row before he discovered the performance troupe, but he said acting has helped him stay there and given him the sense of purpose and self-worth that he needed to eschew crack pipes and needles for six years.

Malpede, 63, harbors no illusions that LAPD's work will change the world. Instead, he sees the troupe's role as building a sense of community in a largely ignored neighborhood and showing that homeless people have intrinsic value as human beings. "People have incredibly stereotypical ideas about homeless people," he said.

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