The choir where homeless singers find hope and acceptance

A group of vocalists gathered to share their love of music on a recent Friday in downtown San Diego.“There will be no love dyin’ here,” belted out the 16 singers, aspiring choir members who came from all walks of life, in harmonies that amplified off the metal walls and ceiling.

“I’m blind and I’m homeless right now,” said Janet Bolden, her hair swept back in long braids that hung over her gray sweatshirt. Like Bolden, half of the choir members are homeless.

The woman behind the Voices of Our City Choir is Steph Johnson, a jazz singer and recording artist who wanted to raise awareness of homelessness.

“I thought, well, what a wonderful way to have a really wonderful, beautiful choir singing and sounding excellent and to be like, ‘Yes, and all of these people happen to not have a home,’” Johnson said.

Johnson said she got the idea for the choir three years ago when she began volunteering to help the homeless.

“I met so many people that played music and sang,” Johnson said. “They’d sing me their songs and sing for me on the street, and I wanted to have a place where we could all go and make music.”

Johnson and her accompanist and co-director, Nina Leilani Deering, carefully select songs with lyrics of love and hope.

“He broke his wings, I helped him heal and then he flew away,” sang Leilani Deering, as she plucked the notes on a keyboard.

The singers enthusiastically repeated the song line-by-line from their rows of red chairs. Some read along to the words printed in their music packets, while others closed their eyes and used their hands to express their emotions. A few chose to sit off to the side, observing and listening more than moving their mouths.

“It gives me hope. It really touched my soul, it uplifted my spirit,” choir member Bolden said. “I haven’t sang in a long time. I really had nothing to sing about, but I like to listen. I love music and I love singing.”

Choir members are encouraged to set aside their personal struggles — and their bags and carts that overflow with belongings accumulated from months of living on the streets.

“I see them let go,” Johnson said. “They know that they’re accepted and they’re welcome, and they’re in a space where they can close their eyes and sing and enjoy that.”

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Bolden smiled as the choir started singing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” despite her desperate situation.

“The world is wonderful,” Bolden said. “People need to reach out more and help people and make it a better place.”

This video originally appeared on public television station KPBS. “Local Beat” features art stories from local PBS stations every Tuesday.
Video Credits:
Reporter – Susan Murphy
Photographer – Nicholas McVicker
Editor – Natalie Walsh

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