Karaoke nights on Skid Row

by Jordan Lee - WNS |

LOS ANGELES — Wednesday nights on Los Angeles's Skid Row look the same as any other night, with hundreds of homeless people pitching tents along the sidewalk and settling into their blankets for the night.

But Wednesday nights don't sound the same.

On the corner of Sixth and San Pedro, the doors of Central City Community Outreach (CCCO) are left open, and one can hear whoop-hollering, applause, and notes from a Diana Ross song streaming out into the night.

It's karaoke night.

The Karaoke Coffee Club has been a tradition on Skid Row for the past 15 years. It is funded by CCCO, but includes volunteers from the Church of the Nazarene, which meets in the building on Sundays. While other services in Skid Row provide the homeless with shelter, food, and clothing, CCCO created karaoke night to bring a little joy into their lives.

Skid Row covers a little over four square miles and is home to one of the nation's largest homeless population with an estimated 7,700 homeless people, according to a 2007 report. Historically, transients gathered here because it was near a port and railway. As the number of homeless grew, missions shelters started popping up to address the needs of the homeless, which in turn led the state to dump more homeless people into the area.

On this January night, Pastor Tony Stallworth of the Church of the Nazarene opens karaoke night with a prayer for protection. After the "amen," the karaoke machine on stage flickers to life, and the first performer is up, mike in hand.

With doors wide open, people wander in and either grab a seat or head to the back room for hot coffee and tea. Performers browse through song books, trying to decide between Coldplay or a Broadway number. People who are ignored by day open up: belting high notes, dancing up and down the aisles, or tapping their feet.

"[Karaoke night] is a time to express yourself, to let some bad stuff go. It's a time for expression of joy," said Darryl Berry, who has come to karaoke night for over a year.

Bobby "Lucky" May discovered karaoke one night when he was wandering the streets, homeless. He's been coming for 15 years, mainly because he's seen what a little singing can do: "I have seen God work here. I've seen people who were drunk, tore up, messed up come in here and sing."

Now Lucky helps the night run smoothly by manning the door and welcoming old friends and newcomers with a hug or a smile: "This is a family...They've been through some storms, and a lot of them have softened, a lot of them have humbled themselves."

Lucky says healing comes from just having someone listen to you: "Once they have opened up, you see their talent, you see their light come on, and everybody's applauding for them. It gives them life again."

Sometimes the singing exposes hidden gifts. Robert Verdan, wearing a suit and felt cap, said he played bass behind singer Phil Phillips and even traveled all over the world performing in the Navy's band during the Vietnam War.

His dream is to record a CD some day: "I want to bring back the old feeling of music someday...I want to be able to sing to the people who like classical."

Mary Barnes, a poet and a songwriter, has her own dream of opening a non-profit for underprivileged kids on Skid Row: "These are the [kids] you don't ever get to see, but that I see behind the scenes. The women and children have it hardest down here on Skid Row."

She credits the karaoke community in helping her realize that she wanted to serve others the way she had been served.

Others decided to use their talents to serve the Church of Nazarene by singing in the choir and ushering. For many, karaoke night was their first introduction to a church body and led them to become members of the Church of Nazarene.

At the end of every karaoke night, the chairs are cleared away to create a make-shift dance space, and everyone gets together to dance the electric slide before heading their separate ways.

But Lucky says they'll be back next week: "People know that we will be here every week. They know they can come back and get that feeling of love again."