Soma Snakeoil #033
On this episode of EventSpeak, Big John sits down with long time friend Soma Snakeoil Co-founder of nonprofit The Sidewalk Project. Join us as we discuss their events (pre COVID) to support LA’s houseless community. They take a walk down memory lane of much wilder times in both of their pasts and be ready to blush as Soma is delightfully and unapologetically well…. Soma. This one is really fun put on your big kid shoes and jump on in!
Giving Back to the Streets: The Sidewalk Project
Soma Snakeoil developed a passion for giving back to the houseless community because she was once unhoused herself. As a former drug user and long time sex worker, she also knows about the importance of decriminalization and activism, and how it can directly impact the lives of unhoused people. It is this passion that led her to co-found the Sidewalk Project. It focuses on breaking down barriers and creating a community for underserved populations. Through the process of building this organization, Snakeoil has learned a lot about marginalized groups and how best to develop relationships, earn trust, and ultimately make a meaningful difference in their lives.
The Sidewalk Project Mission
The Sidewalk Project is a non-profit organization focused on arts and activism, with local chapters throughout California, Arizona, and Nevada. It works directly on the street with the houseless community, uplifting people through music, art, and community building. Three years ago, Snakeoil, Stacy Dee, and Emily Nielson came together and founded this organization as a way to give back to the houseless community, as all of them experienced poverty or houselessness at some point in their lives.
They wanted to create something that gives people on the streets an outlet for entertainment and music. It’s not just about having access to a hot meal or getting things that people need to survive, but also being able to live and enjoy life at whatever stage people are at, wherever they are.
Before large gatherings were prohibited, the Sidewalk Project used events as a way to build community and reach the houseless people where they were most accessible. These street events had the same vibes as parties or festivals, with music and collaborative art pieces. They also served as places where organizers could provide crucial supplies and services to the people who needed them. The idea was to create a place where people could meet each other, connect with organizers, get a hot meal and supplies, and leave feeling better supported and optimistic for the journey ahead. People had fun in addition to seeking and finding help.
The Impact of COVID
Marginalized groups were most affected by the pandemic, and rates of houselessness increased throughout 2020. Snakeoil and her team created wellness kits hand out that covered basic needs. These kits included supplies for washing hands, hand sanitizer, snacks, condoms, and occasionally merch from different bands, since the team is well-connected to the music industry.
They also hand out clean needles and Narcan, which prevents overdose. For sex workers, who are heavily marginalized, the Sidewalk Project has a separate range of products to distribute for harm reduction. In the midst of COVID, the rates of sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) are on the rise, including those for HIV and Hepatitis. The team is focused on public health as well as personal wellness and mental health.
Filling a Gap
Across the United States, especially in Los Angeles, there are some initiatives that are being put in place to help folks get into shelters and find affordable low-income housing that is appropriated by the city. Housing solutions are incredibly important in the fight to end houselessness. So often, people sign up for housing through their local governments and just sit on lists for years without hearing anything, because there is just no availability.
The problem is compounded by the fact that houselessness is often deeply entangled with mental health, trauma. There is a perception that houseless people can simply reach out to their city for services, but often those services just don’t exist, or are spread too thin because of the sheer demand. Because of the lack of continued support, some people find housing but end up on the streets again.
The solution to ending houselessness has to include rehabilitation – teaching people how to change their lifestyle to live successfully in housing again. Snakeoil and the team at the Sidewalk Project are trying to fill this gap by emphasizing the importance of community on the streets. The support system they hope to build will guide people through their journey back into housing.
If we’re just putting people in houses and isolating them and then letting go, that’s creating more loneliness. On its own, that actually isn’t a solution. Addiction, loneliness, depression and anxiety thrive in lonely places. People who live in houses deal with these issues too. The answer has to include creating community systems, because at the end of the day people need each other to survive and thrive.
Snakeoil believes her job is to listen. She wants to empower people in their own community and listen to their voices. For the folks at the Sidewalk Project, it’s not about coming in with their agenda. They make a conscious effort to listen to people that are marginalized and not assume what other people need. There is so much stigma towards people who live on the streets and Snakeoil wants to challenge people’s perspectives on neighborhoods that they don’t live in. That includes addressing the racial bias attached to that.
Snakeoil also encourages others to recognize the houseless community as vibrant and thriving. She sees some of the most beautiful artists and the most talented musicians and on the sidewalk community pages, and wants others to recognize the potential of these people as well.
An Emphasis on Art
Art has always been important to Snakeoil. It’s allowed her to process events in her life, and connect with others. She brings her love of art to her work with the Sidewalk Project as well. The idea is really to connect with other humans by being open about difficult situations that she’s experienced. Other people have also had these painful experiences, maybe in a different way. Reaching out to others and starting those conversations can begin healing and bringing people closer.
Ultimately, everyone has their struggles and vulnerabilities. We’re all trying to do the same thing, which is to find and hold on to whatever happiness we can find. Finding solidarity in our imperfections and uplifting others despite theirs is how we can build a stronger community, no matter where we live.