THE BLOG
11/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Down and Out in Los Angeles

Privilege, Poverty, and the Arts: Debunking the "Basic Needs" Myth

I've met hundreds of homeless young people who steal groceries and sleep in abandoned buildings to survive. A patchwork but functional system exists to meet their "basic needs" -- to get them shelter and food. But my work has led me to question whether our current understanding of "basic needs" does little more than sustain the problem of homelessness, rather than solve it by creating empowered individuals capable of managing their own lives.

Young people who have grown up without a healthy, functioning family lack the emotional maturity and intellectual skills to manage their own lives and move permanently off assistance. Can some of them get jobs and stay in shelters? Yes. Are they able to keep these jobs and follow shelter rules to move into independent lives? No.

We fail these young people by depriving them of long-term sustained access to tools which develop motivation. And the road to motivated, inspired lives runs through the practice of making art.

Arts and music sit at the center of educational and emotional development. Cognitive neuroscientists convened by the Dana Foundation demonstrated that training in a specific art form produces motivation, which in turn sustains attention, which helps to develop cognition. The ability to understand ideas and participate intellectually in society increases confidence and one's sense of self-value.

Most people engage daily with art and music. They lie at the core of our selves. We prove our commitment to and appreciation for arts and music by spending billions of dollars a year to support creative endeavors. Most of us find something emotionally appealing about a good song, a compelling movie, or an interesting book that makes us laugh, cry or feel not so alone. We have aesthetic responses to color, space and design. And they change our lives.

Take Bill. Bill, 23, landed on the streets at 18, slept in abandoned buildings, spent his days going to a drop-in center for lunch and smoking pot. When Bill first came to Hollywood Arts he sat in our parking lot, stoned, and strummed one of our guitars for hours. After six months, he began to take acting classes because they looked "like fun." One day he suddenly realized that he was showing up five days a week for classes in improvisation. He found a job working part-time construction and moved to a shelter.

What happened? Bill says, "The acting classes gave me the confidence to believe in myself. They made me less scared to talk to potential employers and also made me a quicker thinker when they asked me questions in interviews." He now follows the rules of the shelter and at his job, tasks he struggled with before.

Is a construction job or a shelter bed the goal of learning at Hollywood Arts? No. But these are critical first steps. Bill now has an internship with a film company. He works 18-hour days on set and is starting production classes outside of Hollywood Arts in the fall.

Or take Leonard. Leonard, 22, was just hired by Comcast Entertainment Group after a paid summer internship ended. A year ago, Leonard was homeless. He too entered Hollywood Arts with trepidation. But after a year of steady participation in acting and writing classes, lectures from professionals in the entertainment industry and a mentorship, Leonard works in the media center at Comcast, attends classes full-time at Los Angeles City College with the hope of transferring to UCLA, and lives in his own apartment. Yes, we bought him a suit, but the real work happened inside Leonard. He woke up every morning at 6:30 to take a bus to Comcast, met with his mentor to learn job-etiquette, and decided to do the homework necessary to excel in college. Why? He believed in himself for the first time.

These stories illustrate solutions based on personal motivation that is unlocked not by food or shelter but by improving self-esteem. Human development is a slow process, and while faster in youth, is directly tied to how we feel about ourselves and what motivates us. Unlocking motivation is critical to creating empowered individuals who will be able to learn the skills to manage their own lives. Young people possess unparalleled enthusiasm for the arts. By reaching youth through arts and music, we are taking advantage of critical developmental mechanisms.

Shelter is important. Food is vital. But a strong sense of self-worth is also a basic need. Current approaches are only sustaining, not solving, the problem of homelessness, leaving generations of young people who will spend their adult lives on assistance. Arts-based learning is a way out by creating empowered and educated individuals who are able to live independently.

Dylan Kendall runs Hollywood Arts, the only arts-based educational facility for low-income, homeless and foster care young people ages 18-24 in the country.