Kaleidoscope at the Bell Shelter

As part of Kaleidoscope’s season launch concert in early October, we took our program to the Salvation Army Bell Shelter and performed for an enthusiastic and appreciative audience of the shelter’s residents.

One of the audience members was a man named A.J. Ward, who told us that his father used to be a clarinetist in the San Francisco Symphony.

“This concert brought back memories,” Ward said. “I played the flute when I was young. I don’t know music that well anymore, but I know what I like to hear, and I liked what I heard.”

The fact that Kaleidoscope is conductorless made an impression on a number of the residents, including Ward.  

“I like the whole concept of no conductor,” he said. “It requires a lot more self-discipline, trying to stay with others and gauge your own contribution.”

Alexandra Tostes, the shelter’s director of operations, spoke afterward about what the concert meant to the residents.

“When someone gives up that kind of time, when musicians come out to play something this beautiful for them, I think it makes our residents feel more important as individuals,” she said. “It makes them feel more a part of the world, part of the environment around them. Even beyond that, I think it makes them feel a part of something greater, because music is so profound and beautiful. Classical music has been around for so long, and it was the music of kings. I think they feel really empowered by that.”

The Bell Shelter cares for about 295 year-round clients, men and women between the ages of 18 and 88. The majority of its clients have a disabling condition besides chronic homelessness, such as a physical disability or mental illness, and some have been on the streets for as many as 15 or 20 years. The shelter’s main goal is to help them find permanent housing.

A client’s typical stay can be anywhere between 3 and 18 months, depending on the circumstances. According to Tostes, many of the residents are very busy during that time.

“It is a real misconception that homeless people are lazy,” Tostes said. “Our clients definitely do not like the situation that they’re in. They really want to do better. They want a permanent home, it’s just that sometimes they’ve lost their way and lost their support system, and they lack confidence. That’s probably their biggest crutch, thinking that they’re going to fail because they’ve failed before. They just need someone who encourages them and tells them that it’s going to be ok. I think because we have a very open community, it encourages even the type of person that isolates to engage.”

The shelter’s clients meet with a case manager every week, and individual therapy is available for them with a psychotherapist. Some of its clients are very high-functioning. Some are retired from military and others are still in the workforce.

“Homelessness is not the person you see begging for money on the freeway corner,” Tostes said. “It could be your neighbor. It’s as easy as you losing a partner, or losing a roommate, or getting overwhelmed with your debt.”

Tostes noted that some of the shelter’s residents grew up with music, but perhaps haven’t heard live music for decades.

“I had a few people here tell me how uplifting the music was, how it just made them happy even in negative circumstances,” she said. “It inspired the residents to feel good about today at least. It was right before their dinner, and they didn’t want to eat, they just wanted to listen to the music.”

As far as what we can all do to help with homelessness, Tostes recommends that the next time we see someone on the corner asking for money, direct them to a place where they can get some help. She suggests that every person be aware of where a local shelter is, and donate time to get to know it.

“Even if it’s just serving the residents, you get a totally different picture of what their reality really is,” she said. “They’re people just like you and me trying to get back into the rhythm of things, but they might not have the family or financial support to do it. Their stories are no different from ours. Just like the gentleman whose father played for the San Francisco Symphony. There’s a story behind every individual here, and it’s not one that includes being lazy.”

Kaleidoscope is committed to reaching out to the Los Angeles community and bringing live music to people who might not otherwise have access to classical concerts. The performance at the Bell Shelter was just as much of an enriching experience for the orchestra members as it was for the residents, and we are excited to continue putting together community engagement programs. 

Thank you for following Kaleidoscope! We hope to see you at our next public concerts on December 11th and 13th, featuring Brahms' Symphony No. 4 and Ives' Unanswered Question.

Nicole Sauder