By Victor Casillas Valle
Nestled behind St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, on Bancroft Way in Berkeley, is one huge set of steel steps covered in rust and foliage. Walking up them, there’s a feeling of urban beauty, something that is calming with a rush of city excitement. Reaching the top, you enter a high-ceilinged auditorium with huge windows and an airy sense of natural light. Every Monday, the room is filled with conversation rising from the writing workshop, or occasional open mic, provided by the Write Home Project.
Conceived and run by two UC Berkeley alumni and working poets, Gabriel Cortez and Natasha Huey, The Write Home Project facilitates creative arts work by homeless youth (under 25). Write Home provides an outlet for its participants to be heard while they tell stories about, and create a dialogue around, the state of homelessness.
The Project focuses on three key components: weekly workshops and open mics provided in conjunction with The Suitcase Clinic, video production of the youth’s performances as a testimony of their struggle for the public, and town hall meetings to discuss the current state of homelessness.
“There are tons of assumptions when it comes to being a member of the homeless community,” said Cortez, “and this is a way for everyone to hear each other, see each other, and really get to know each other.”
Consistently, the writing workshops, with the occasional open mic, provide a creative, mentally and emotionally healing space for a community that doesn’t regularly receive these opportunities. Basic necessities such as food, water, clothes, and shelter are the usual provisions for the homeless; however, the emotional and creative need has yet to be consistently served to the homeless population.
The site is festive-like. Food graces the tables around the auditorium while some people engage in crafts as they see familiar faces and meet new people. There’s a buzz of guitar tuning, the scribbling of pencils and pens against notebooks, and an overall lively atmosphere reverberating against the high ceilings and around the room.
Backpacks, luggage and personal belongings lay against foldout chairs forgotten for the night, while nearly everyone engages in conversation around the shared tables. The sign-up sheet is passed around for the open mic and, while some are shy to write their name down, others approach the list with a ferocious smile and an excited demeanor.
Tefari Casas, a volunteer at the Write Home Project, was one of those eager to sign up.
“People walk by these people every day and just don’t see the amazing amount of talent here,” said Casas. “Something like this — art, music, dance — creates a common denominator amongst people. I hope people take time out of their day to come out to things like this, on both sides.”
There is a quick hush as Huey and Cortez begin the event, and a sense of calming support immediately blankets the room.
Affirmations, claps, snaps, and verbal shouts of “yes!” come from the audience as each person performs their art form. On the stage, banjos twang, people rap, others perform poems, but all performances reinforce the collective gathering that the Write Home Project provides to the homeless youth population.
Michael Mortimer, a member of this population, performed some of his original material that night. He sported a gray Dickies jacket with a self-created painting of a human heart on the back, and had a large beard with eyes that lit up as he smiled around the room.
As Mortimer recited “So tired of carrying my heavy load,” the crowd instantly responded, and began chanting along, creating some sort of communal consciousness on shared experience.
“I think things like this are 100% necessary. They’re absolutely vital,” said Mortimer. “It’s a natural occurrence — art — and this space accommodates that.”
Topics discussed among performances were mental health, death, addiction and family.
The homeless community that comes to the Write Home Project encompasses tons of stories and demographics: from students who can’t afford a place to live, so they couch-surf or live out of their cars, to others who may have experienced problems or traumas that have left them out on the streets. No story is identical.
“We’ve definitely learned a lot interacting with the homeless youth in Berkeley,” said Gabriel Cortez. “Hearing their stories and listening to their experiences has really shattered stereotypes on my end.”
“It’s humbling to see this simple form of arts as healing coming into play for a community who usually doesn’t get this opportunity,” said Natasha Huey. “Some people have even described it as their own form of going to church.”
☞ The Write Home Project holds weekly writing workshops and monthly open mics at The Suitcase Clinic in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.
☞ On May 4, the Write Home Project will also be having its first Town Hall, where people from the homeless community, and those outside it, can come together to talk about the current state of homelessness. It will be held on the UC Berkeley campus. For more information, visit the Write Home Project online.
Victor Casillas Valle is a writer, photographer, videographer and poet. This article first appeared on his Tumblr collected writings site.
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