Arguably, the heart of everything is culture. Art, music, and people are the backbone of the world, and Los Angeles is no exception. L.A. prides itself on its wide range of communities, all blending together to form a coherent city-wide culture. A community that tends to be ignored, though, is the one we like to think about the least: the homeless population.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a thriving culture, though — and it’s tied directly to people living on the streets, people who used to live on the streets, and people who dedicate their time and energy to getting people off the streets.
LACAN is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit formed with the intent of caring for, providing for, and helping homeless people with little access to resources. One of the most community-based nonprofits in the city, they hold protests and parades, deliver food, clothes, and tents, raise money for other resources, protest for more affordable housing, and do almost anything else you can think of to help the homeless. They’re a small but mighty nonprofit that makes actual, physical change in the world around us.
One of their more unusual activities, however, isn’t structural or legal change at all — it’s art, music, and community. The LACAN band is a group of community members, most of whom are living on Skid Row, who come together regularly to make music, dance, and sing, as well as connect with others living on the streets. A video can be found on their website of a classical cellist playing Bach with accompaniment by an older man playing a djembe, a traditional African drum. You can also find recordings of live storytelling, performance, and in-person (pre-pandemic) events.
While LACAN’s roots are not entirely in arts and music, they are in community and people — both the individual’s right to be free and supported and the rights of the greater people to community-wide resources.
Having been raised in the homeless capital of the country, I have a basic understanding of what Skid Row and the culture of its inhabitants looks like. One thing that’s easily noticeable to anyone living in this city is how important community is to homeless citizens of Los Angeles. When someone has no physical house, nothing close to enough resources, and barely enough food to stay alive, they attach themselves to what they do have: people. Friends, family, connections. And while it’s not enough by itself to honor that sense of community and contribute to it in any way we can, it might not be as meaningless as we think.
The culture of this city is so vast and with so many different layers and subcategories. It’s almost impossible to define. Young aspiring actresses in Santa Monica with surfboards and skater boyfriends. Hipster art students in downtown L.A. Old men with big names and bigger stage presence. Independent artists and too many others to name coexist in the narrative of the city. However, almost all respected subcategories of Los Angele culture and community require something that homeless people don’t have.
Skid Row and the unromanticized parts of the city are bursting with culture, but it continually fails to make its way into the mainstream understanding of what Los Angeles is. That’s what we need to be trying to fix, not only by working to get as many people off the streets as we can but also by making homeless culture more prevalent in Los Angeles art. By celebrating and understanding homeless culture and community, we can work to include the obvious homeless crisis into our narrative of what the city is and means.
Can LACAN make a practical change by emphasizing arts and culture? Honestly, I don’t entirely know. Music and art won’t create housing or jobs, but it does way more good than we tend to credit it with. Feeling not alone, supported, and like you have something to look forward to is more important than we often realize. If LACAN and their focus on art and community can provide that for the homeless population, even if it’s not creating the practical change we usually define as “progress,” it’s a lot more productive than we might think.