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Homeless Choir Singers In San Diego Find Healing Through Music

Video by Nicholas Mcvicker

“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.’”

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Singers with the Voices of Our City Choir in downtown San Diego belt out "What A Wonderful World" during a rehearsal, Nov. 4, 2016.

A group of vocalists gathered on a recent Friday in downtown San Diego to share their love of music.

“There will be no love dyin’ here,” belted out the 16 singers in harmonies that amplified off the metal walls and ceiling in an old building on 13th Street.

The aspiring choir members came from all walks of life.

“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 started the choir 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, a San Diego native who grew up in Poway, 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 that carry messages 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.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Janet Bolden, who is blind and homeless, puts her hand to her ear as she sings "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" with the Voices of Our City Choir, Nov. 4, 2016.

“It gives me hope. It really touched my soul, it uplifted my spirit,” 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."

Bolden was attending choir rehearsal for the first time. It’s also the first time in her life she has been homeless. She’s been living on the streets for two months while waiting for a shelter bed to open up.

“Not from being on drugs or anything,” Bolden said. “But from the property I lived in being sold and my income being so low that I’m unable to get another place.”

Inside the choir walls she found community and kindness, she said.

Steph Johnson Holiday Concert, featuring the Voices of Our City Choir

7 p.m. Dec. 4, 2016

1955 Julian Avenue, San Diego, CA 92113

Admission: $8 for students, $15 for adults (A portion goes to Amikas.org to help homeless women and children)

“I’m overwhelmed to know that people that I’ve never met before in my life care enough about me to watch out for me,” Bolden said.

Even more important than hitting all the right notes is the time for food and fellowship at the beginning and end of rehearsals, which take place every other Friday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Living Water Church.

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.”

Bolden smiled as the choir started singing Louis Armstrong's “What a Wonderful World,” despite the irony of the lyrics to her desperate situation.

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

The songs resonated onto the streets below, where Bolden hunkers down every night. She’s among hundreds in the East Village living without shelter.

The tent-lined sidewalks are where Johnson recruits members for the choir. She first met Bolden last month by a park down the street.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Steph Johnson meets Janet Bolden near a park on 13th Street in San Diego's East Village, and invites her to an upcoming choir rehearsal, Oct. 25, 2016.

It’s also where she found Juan Campbell, who has been homeless for two years.

“She got down on the ground and sat down with me,” Campbell said. “That was probably the beginning of something that I thought that anything that she had to do with a direction or a movement that I would be a part of.”

Campbell has been a part of the choir since its beginning last spring. The former banker from Seattle said the choir has changed his life.

“I love music,” Campbell said. “It’s tough on those streets. I’m already a part of that. That’s a negative. So I wanted to do something that’s for the positive."

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Juan Campbell, who has been homeless in San Diego for two years, sings with the Voices of Our City Choir, Nov. 4, 2016.

Johnson said she hopes the singers will find healing, purpose and a sanctuary from the streets, however brief.

“It’s giving them their voice back and giving them an opportunity to smile and to celebrate life,” said Johnson, who is planning a holiday concert with the choir in December and possibly a recording gig.

Bolden said she hopes her favorite song is included.

“'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' is one of my favorites from childhood,” Bolden said.

She welled up with tears as the choir rehearsal concluded with the classic song. “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why can’t I?"

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