LAPD History

Los Angeles Poverty Department was founded in 1985 by director-performer-activist John Malpede. LAPD was the first performance group in the nation made up principally of homeless people, and the first arts program of any kind for homeless people in Los Angeles.

Skid Row Los Angeles is the poorest area in the city, with the largest concentration of homeless people of any neighborhood in the US.   At the time of its founding, homelessness in Skid Row was thought of as a “beans and blankets” issue. Poor and homeless people in the neighborhood were warehoused in shelters, fed in soup lines and there was little belief and no means for assisting people to rise out of this condition.  LAPD, as the first arts organization on Skid Row, was active in a conversation and a movement with advocates, residents and social service professionals, that changed the paradigm by putting forward the idea that Skid Row could be improved, by embracing and nourishing the powers of the people who live there.

Skid Row is a designed area, designed to concentrate the poorest citizens and services for those citizens in a restricted area.  But this “containment policy” for Skid Row (officially described as such in planning documents of the city) has backfired, in the classic “watch out what you wish for cause it just might happen” mode. The containment and segregation of Skid Row has resulted in the grassroots creation of a real community.

While thousands of people are still homeless in the streets, in the past 25 years more than 40 former flop-house hotels have been transformed by non-profits to provide safe, affordable, permanent housing and this housing stock has been preserved in large part due to the organized civic engagement of Skid Row residents.  The result: today 3/4 of the 20,000 people living in this 55-block downtown neighborhood, are formerly homeless people, they include children, elderly, women, families, veterans, a large and active drug recovery community, those with mental and physical disabilities, and people recovering from incarceration.

LAPD believes in the power of imagination to motivate people —and not only artistically by acknowledging the hopes, dreams, rational and spiritual power at the core of everyone’s humanity.  LAPD’s success has encouraged many Skid Row agencies to integrate arts into their programs, and has informed policy. We’re a pipsqueak organization that has had a major impact on raising the value placed on the arts by social service providers and policy makers.

LAPD’s activities and projects have used theater and other arts to thematically focus on a constellation of inter-related issues of continuing importance to Skid Row, and other low-income communities.  A common element is to create acknowledgement for the accomplishments of the neighborhood. In articulating the new reality of the neighborhood, we create a narrative that causes re-thinking of a variety of issues, including: gentrification and community displacement, drug recovery, the war on drugs and drug policy reform, the status of women and children on Skid Row and mass incarceration and the criminalization of poverty.

Based on our continuous, committed work on Skid Row, LAPD has been invited to create residency projects in communities throughout the US, and in the UK, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Bolivia and Nicaragua, working with drug recovery programs, shelters, policy advocates and arts organizations. We’ve won a number of awards including LA Weekly Theater Award; New York’s Bessie Creation Award; the San Francisco Art Institute’s Kent Award; Theater L.A.’s Ovation Award; Cornerstone Theater’s Bridge Award; and an Otto Award for political theater.  In 2008, LAPD was nominated for “Prix du Souffleur” award for “Best Ensemble” in Paris theater, for our production “Red Beard, Red Beard”.

LAPD tells the rest of the story, what you don’t hear elsewhere.  We create change by telling the story of the community in a way that supports the initiatives of community residents.  We want the narrative of the neighborhood to be in the hands of neighborhood people.  We work to generate this narrative and to supplant narratives that perpetuate stereotypes used to keep the neighborhood people down or to justify displacing the community. We want to create recognition of the community and it’s values.

We want to create a normative community on Skid Row and normative communities for all people living in poverty.  In other words, if they’ve got municipal services in some parts of town, then we want them in ours.  If they’ve got parks, restaurants, community centers, then we want the same.  We want the same policing in our community as in others.   Not, bending of the laws to serve racial profiling or to effect any other aim such as harassing people so that they will leave the neighborhood so that it can be developed.

We make change by creating initiatives that bring together Skid Row service providers, grass roots organizations and community members.  With the Urban Institute and Americans for the Arts, we initiated a series of neighborhood convening’s for residents and community organizations to articulate the role of culture in Skid Row and to find out what they desire for the future.  The results were published by Americans for the Arts in a paper co-authored by Maria Jackson of the Urban Institute and John Malpede of LAPD.  The paper affirmed the importance of grass roots culture arising from the initiatives of Skid Row residents, and has been a hugely well-received and often cited source of validation among Skid Row cultural activists.  As OG Man, whose initiatives include art workshops and starting the Skid Row 3 on 3 basketball league told Malpede, while brandishing a copy of the report: “Now, finally we got proof of what we knew along but no one listened to.”  In July 2010, we hosted a panel with the LA Central Library in their very visible ALOUD series that announced our “Walk the Talk” project: a peripatetic performance with 36 scenes.  Each scene in “Walk the Talk” was performed at the site associated with the efforts of 36 neighborhood social and cultural visionaries. This project has become a bi-annual parade-performance event and  includes both the performance and the creation and installation of a permanent public artwork — a wall of portraits, of these same community visionaries.

In April 2015, LAPD opened it’s Skid Row History Museum & Archive at 440 S. Broadway. The museum functions as a means for exploring the mechanics of displacement in an age of immense income inequality, by mining a neighborhood’s activist history and amplifying effective community resistance strategies. It also serves as a literal and artistic common ground, a welcoming space for Angelenos to meet and mingle and explore civic issues together.

LAPD values accessibility and inclusion. We meet people where they are. We don’t give life sentences: “homeless”, “drug addict”, “crack addict”. We believe people grow and change.  Tolerance.  Society judges, gives labels rather than giving the space for recovery.  LAPD doesn’t do that.  Not judging, we build compassion.