Guest Post – Voices of Our City: Re-Defining the Concept of Choir

Written by Guest Contributor Michael Williams, an ex-homeless veteran and author/publisher of books on homelessness, domestic violence, and parental drinking.

San Diego is in the midst of an awakening!

The Voices of Our City Choir performed for the opening of the National Convention for the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) before an audience of over a thousand people and every audience member was astounded and dancing by the end of the performance. The choir can only be described as a musical celebration and a new way to look at what we understand a choir to be.

In England in the 16th century, the word choir denoted a place or location in a church typically between an altar and the main body of the church.

The Voices of Our City Choir does not have a place in itself that can be called a choir. More importantly, about one third of the choir are people without homes to lay their heads in and another third is housing insecure, as told to me by John Brady, Director of Advocacy and Operations for the choir. John has been a member of the choir since their second rehearsal, mainly because he was living on the street in front of the church where they rehearsed and had skills in setting up a sound system. Additionally, John has a Master’s in Business Administration which provides skills the choir desperately needs which demonstrates to me that sometimes life is destined.

The choir was co-founded by Steph Johnson (vocalist, composer, guitarist) and Nina Leilani (vocalist, guitarist, violin, piano). The choir has been featured on KPBS, NPR, PBS, News Hour, and the San Diego Union Tribune, just to name a few.

The choir had their first rehearsal in August of 2016 where three people showed; since then they have grown and now average from seventy-five to ninety members per rehearsal. Their rehearsals are open to the public each Friday and consist of singing, songwriting workshops, guitar lessons, food distribution and a catered lunch. Taylor guitar is a sponsor for the choir and has donated instruments to the group.

They are now an in demand working choir delighting their audiences wherever they go; including a gig with the San Diego Symphony and the San Diego Master Chorale where Patti LaBelle was also on the ticket. During that promotion the choir received a standing ovation three consecutive nights in a row with an audience attendance of over three thousand.

Most choirs would be pleased at what is stated here, however only part of the above is what makes this choir exceptional. This choir utilizes income from performances to provide solutions to the homeless dilemma in San Diego. The choir has provided permanent housing to at least thirty-eight of its members. Additionally, the choir has a permanent case manager to facilitate these transitions, a health and fitness program, life skills workshops, an advocacy program and a public speaker’s program. They have developed a number of collaborations with community partners; some of which are the Alpha Project, Veterans Village, and the County of San Diego.

In the interview with John Brady for the writing of this piece, he listed so many local office-bearers and public officials that the choir has met with that it is safe to say that if there is a public official in San Diego County, this choir has advocated for the homeless to that official. Their work effort is relentless!

This relentless work effort both by and for the homeless was recognized by an advocacy grant to the choir by Funders Together to End Homelessness.

The Voices of Our City Choir is an organization that helps people to help themselves. They provide a sense of well-being for people experiencing homelessness, a sense of community, and a celebration of humanity. I don’t think we will ever look at a choir the same after experiencing the Voices of Our City.