To the editors:
Michael P. Walsh in a letter published on June 8th, 1990, referred to the performance of the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) as exploitive. LAPD is a theater group comprised of homeless and formerly homeless individuals and directed by performance artist John Malpede. Mr. Walsh's letter involves two different levels of misunderstanding. His letter was written in response to a review of LAPD's performance at Randolph Street Gallery by Justin Hayford [May 25]. This review is where the misunderstanding begins. Mr. Hayford describes John Malpede as sitting in the audience and shouting out directions "incessantly." He says, Malpede's "authority is never challenged. . . . He seems intent on destabilizing the narrative." Mr. Hayford's descriptions are somewhat accurate, but his conclusion misses the point. He wrote, "I found his [Malpede's] voice intrusive, as if the director couldn't keep his hand out of the material." John let us think for ourselves. We were more than just performers; we were partners in the direction of the performance. During the actual performance, John was not functioning as the director; he was playing a character. His role in the performance was that of the voice that is always questioning your actions and that paralyzes you. He was the boss at your job that is always on you and guaranteeing that you're going to fail because you're so uptight. He was the voice of authority that tells you how small you are. He was the voice of Mr. Walsh who simplifies the problem and KNOWS the answer.
Mr. Walsh wrote, "people are homeless because they don't have any homes or jobs. Simple isn't it? All we have to do is get a little cheap housing and some honest work." No, unfortunately, it isn't simple. People are not homeless just because they don't have homes. Not being able to maintain a stable home is not the problem, it is the result of a long list of problems. When a disaster strikes and takes somebody's home, it takes a person's pride and self-respect with it because a home is a lot more than a house or a shelter. When you find yourself on the street, you're not going to find anything to help you get your pride or self-respect back, and if you didn't start out with too much of this in the first place, then you might never get back on track.
Mr. Walsh wrote that the performance was to fill "this week's guilt quota." That's an important point. Homeless people don't want guilt or pity. We want dignity and to get that we think people need to understand because on the street we might seem very different from people like Mr. Walsh but in reality we are human beings who have had some very dramatic things happen in our lives. If we tell you our story, it's not because we want your sympathy; it's because we have a story to tell. We think John Malpede and LAPD should be given credit for at least making an effort to dismantle prevailing stereotypes of homelessness by presenting the real picture. Pictures told by us and about us; not the Hollywood picture but the real deal, so to speak.
Until we as a society really begin to look at all the different reasons why people are homeless, until we stop focusing on the fact of homelessness, until we start to look at the bigger picture and try to understand the various steps that lead up to homelessness, until we stop stereotyping homeless people and getting angry at them and blaming them for being homeless, until we do these things then we will never really stop homelessness; we will only deal with the surface of the problem and not the causes. If a person, like Mr. Walsh, were to begin to try to finish the sentence: People are homeless because . . ., then the place to begin might be because society is locking a certain number of people out. So the questions that need to be asked are why do people feel left out? Why do certain people have low self-esteem? Why do some people feel the need to abuse others? These are questions that LAPD's performance tried to address by looking at the abusive family situation that one of LAPD's members grew up in and showing how those elements get translated into an adult life as a homeless person. Or by considering Mark Dorsey's employment situation in which he was fired for something he didn't do and how his situation got translated into a bargaining chip that was relinquished in some bigger deal between his union and his employers.
Mr. Hayford said that at times the performance seemed "embarrassingly close to group therapy." Maybe it is a sort of group therapy for society, but we prefer to call it show business. We want to show our experiences because if you don't show them then nobody is going to understand. Maybe those of us who are homeless and those of us who are on our way out of homelessness have an inside picture and have some valuable information for a society that really wants to solve this problem.
Mr. Walsh also suggested that John Malpede was exploiting the homeless people who performed. He could not be more wrong. Our involvement with the LAPD group helped us to see that we do have something to say and contribute and maybe this is where dignity and self-respect begin. LAPD had a huge impact on our lives, and when they left, they left behind a big hole in our lives. So instead of going back to hanging out on a corner or whatever, we've decided to start our own group here in Chicago. Once we get a performance together, we hope Mr. Walsh and anyone else who thinks the solution to homelessness is cheap houses will come and listen.