It’s a little known fact, but homeless people are incredible singers. At least many of the homeless people struggling in Los Angeles are above average. I stumbled on this phenomenon with some friends one Wednesday night at the Central City Community Church’s outreach.
We were serving the needy at the Karaoke Coffee Club by donating our time to about 300 of Skid Row’s 15,000 homeless people. Skid Row is a 10-square block area in California where nearly 20 percent of Los Angeles County’s 91,000 homeless people live. It’s the kind of place where you get out of your car and pray you’re not robbed or killed before crossing the street to get into a building. However, if you go on a Wednesday night in hopes of hearing a good cover of “I Will Survive,” you’re in for a treat.
The thing about doing karaoke with the homeless is that the whole event feels ridiculous from the start. Shouldn’t we be feeding people or helping them find jobs? But on Skid Row, none of that matters–it’s not about you.
The first time I went, I made the rookie’s mistake of bringing a false sense of superiority. I was the urban missionary, slumming it in order to reach out to those less fortunate. But once the music started, my tune changed.
The homeless singers were good. And I’m not talking Britney Spears on a good day good. I mean they were “Whitney Houston singing the National Anthem pre-Bobby Brown” good.
The leftover pizza, donated by a local Sbarro restaurant, and the hot coffee brewing in the background were an afterthought. No one was there for a meal; everyone came to have a good time.
I vividly remember The Karaoke Coffee Club not only because it was such an entertaining night, but also because it was the most authentic service project I have ever participated in with other believers. Homeless karaoke takes into account the whole person living on the streets. Yes, of course the homeless need food and shelter, but so do pets. Beyond the practical needs of the individual, this meeting on Skid Row provided peer-to-peer community, allowing people to congregate in a safe environment where they could laugh, sing, and leave behind the challenges of daily survival.
More service projects should look like homeless karaoke. Just as Christ insisted on physically touching the leper’s skin and patting mounds of mud on the blind man’s eyes, we should always begin with a human connection.
To meet only the practical needs of someone in trouble is fleeting–a meal satiates hunger only for a day. But the affirmation of someone’s existence, the validation of his or her humanity, can last a lifetime.