Aria Bendix is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab. Her work has appeared on Bustle and The Harvard Crimson.
Urban Confessional lends a helping ear to strangers on the street.
Even amid the bustling crowds and vibrant soundscape, life in a city can feel quite lonely. Past research has discovered a link between urban dwelling, poor mental health, and feelings of isolation, stress, and anxiety. Residents can easily be swept up in the hurried lifestyle that has come to characterize urban living.
When the actor Vivi Devereaux moved to Los Angeles a year ago from South Africa, he encountered a stark cultural difference. “This city is full of cynics,” he says. “Over here, people are suspect of something that could be free, that could be given for the sake of being given.”
It was during this time that he was introduced to Urban Confessional, a social project designed to engage with strangers by lending an ear. Every week, members of the group take to the streets carrying signs that read, “Free Listening.” As they invite people to approach them, their main goal is simple: to listen to anyone who wants to talk without passing judgment or offering advice.
“The pulse of cities is begging for genuine connection,” says Benjamin Mathes, the program’s founder, who works as an actor, producer, and author in L.A. “Anything that we can do to disrupt the noise and pace of the city, and be a reminder that people matter, that we should slow down and listen to them … I can’t think of a better way to spend the day.”
Urban Confessional began four years ago in L.A., at a time when Mathes had “hit rock bottom” and was searching for a way to heal and connect with others. In the beginning, the program only consisted of a small group of fellow actors. Now, it has blossomed into a global public service spanning 16 countries, with volunteers in cities like Barcelona, Lima, Sydney, and New York.
When I spoke to Mathes on the phone, he had just finished “free listening” at a North Hollywood metro station—the first spot that Urban Confessional frequented back in 2012. The area, he says, is rife with dangerous activity—gang violence, prostitution, sex trafficking. In the past, local law enforcement have asked volunteers to exercise caution when offering their listening services. Still, Mathes has identified a need for support in these communities.
“We’ve had people come to us in all stages of recovery and addiction,” Mathes says. Once, he was approached by a woman who had been abused, kicked out of her home, and sought refuge at a strip club at age 17. When Mathes met her, the woman was working as a prostitute, and the two conversed for about an hour. The following week, the woman returned—not to share her story, but to listen alongside other Urban Confessional volunteers.
For Mathes, the desire to be heard is universal. “Whether you’re in a city or a small town, whether it’s in America or Peru or South Africa, we carry around the same burdens,” he says.
Devereaux also finds that “people tend to open up once they realize they’re in a safe place.” Many times, he says, people just want to know that someone is paying attention. Of course, there are those who remain skeptical, and even those who may mistake an Urban Confessional volunteer for someone canvassing or soliciting money.
“We are mostly a disruption,” says Mathes. “We literally disrupt people’s commute, their travel, and their hustle.” But Urban Confessional also encourages urbanites to take some time for themselves, and to recognize that there are many people out there who are willing to hear their story. And that, for Mathes, is the best part.