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Voices of Our City Choir helps people off the streets one song at a time

Voices of Our City choir
Steph Johnson, co founder and musical director of 'Voices of Our City' choir leads the members in rehearsal for their 'Hope for the Holidays' concert.

Semi-finalists on "America's Got Talent," the Voices of Our City Choir will hold their annual fundraising concert on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021.

You’d never know it, but if you look beyond the tents of people living on the street in Downtown San Diego, you‘ll find a little corner space that’s filled with love and music.

“When I walked into the choir, first of all I felt accepted and loved, I felt loved, loved,” said Ayoe Rydiander. She said she she came upon the “Voices of Our City” choir by chance two years ago, when she was living on the street and desperately looking for a place to charge her phone.

“And somebody just kind of put their arms around me and just let me in here, and I couldn’t believe it,” Rydiander said. “There’s a choir and I’m like, ‘What is this?’ and they’re like, ‘It’s a choir,’ and I'm like, ‘How do you get to do this?’ [They said] ‘Just have a seat.’”

That day, she became one of the Voices of Our City.

The choir is made up of a diverse group of people with one thing in common: homelessness. Every member of this choir is or was homeless.

RELATED: San Diego County Supervisors OK framework to tackle homelessness

Rydiander said she feels fortunate to be living in a shelter now and grateful to be a part of this musical family. “I always wished I had this love like other families do, and it didn’t happen until I found the choir,” she said. “I mean, it’s insane… this is when I learned that I’m worthy of love too, I’m important too, cause I didn’t used to feel that.”

That’s exactly why Steph Johnson, the co-founder and creative director of “Voices of Our City” started this choir. “A person has to feel seen and heard and be treated with respect and dignity, and what happens every week when we come together to sing is that everybody’s voice is heard,” she said.

Johnson said she sees miracles happen through the music, “When you create a space, a safe space for people to be individuals, magic happens.”

And that magic has taken them to unexpected places -- including the semi-finals of the NBC show “America’s Got Talent.”

“When we started the choir about five years ago, we wanted to bring this music, we wanted to bring the space of good food, good music and a safe place for people to be just wanting to treat people with respect and dignity,” Johnson said. “Never knowing that we were going to become an on-demand performance ensemble... never knowing we would be on ‘America’s Got Talent,’ or that we would start our own publishing company, that we’re writing our own song. We have our own studio now. We never knew that we would be this vehicle, this catalyst for change.”

That change has included housing for 80 choir members, along with resources and support paid for with money raised in their performances.

RELATED: County, City Working To Open New 'Safe Haven' Homeless Shelters

Choir member Kaia Reuter was homeless as a child. She said that help, plus the music, does more than nourish the body. Together, they heal the soul. “When you’re here you’re accepted, you’re whole, you're loved you’re wanting to sing and you get the resources to eat, to sleep and you get the resources to just be you authentically,” she said.

Rydiander said, ironically, having nothing has given her everything -- but it couldn’t have happened without the choir’s help, “I feel like I had a life before the choir before and before homelessness and a life after. I feel like I began living once I lost everything.”

“It is a community of people who were missing a lot of hope in their lives and a lot of positivity in their lives,” said Johnson. “And when we come together every week to sing … something transforms and something transforms and something happens in that person’s life.”

And when they leave choir rehearsal, Johnson said, they take a little of that magic with them, “to navigate some heavy, ugly thing that they have to go through, but they have joy and hope in their step.”

And unlike material possessions, this is something that can’t be taken away.

‘Voices of Our City Choir’ helps people off the streets one song at a time

“It’s like once you feel it you can’t unfeel it and you come back because you want to feel good you want to feel complete,” said Rydiander.

The magic will be on stage this Sunday at the Music Box on India street, as the choir performs its “Hope for the Holidays” concert.

Reuter said on that night, no matter who you are, what you have or what you're going through, everyone belongs to each other.

“Life can be troublesome, you can feel alone, you can feel sad and you can feel like you’re not enough and the moment you hear ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,’ and… your face lights up ... and you just get lost in the music and i think that’s the beauty of it because it brings us all together, brings oneness and that love for just magic.”