Local choir provides healing, hope through music for San Diego unhoused population

Voices of Our City Choir uses the power of music for change

Steph Johnson stands with her arms up in celebration next to choir member Anthony Bielik

Steph Johnson, executive and creative director of Voices of Our City Choir, celebrates as choir member Anthony Bielik (left) shares at the weekly Monday practice about a recent choir performance. Photo by Kathryn Gray/City Times Media

Kathryn Gray, Managing Editor

CityScene, Fall 2021 CoverThis story was featured in the fall 2021 edition of CityScene magazine.

From her seat adjacent to the Voices of Our City Choir band beneath the fluorescent lights of the retrofitted warehouse that is now the Living Water Church of the Nazarene, a young woman in a white tank top and black leggings sang proudly in harmony through a black and white face mask.

Diana Duran, 25, has been part of the Voices of Our City Choir for several months since seeing it perform at the Temporary Bridge Shelter, a 325-person residential tent complex operated by Alpha Project in downtown San Diego where she currently resides.

After arriving in San Diego from Juarez, Mexico in February 2020 seeking a better quality of life, Duran lived with her sister in Ramona. That wasn’t working out for her, so she moved to the temporary shelter. 

“(Voices of Our City Choir) had an event at the tent with music and food,” Duran remembered. “That is when I learned that they have case management and that the choir is like a family.”

Always a music lover, Duran — who lists Ariana Grande among her favorite performers — has spent the last four months bonding with the group that has become like family.

With support from Voices of Our City Choir and Alpha Project, Duran hopes she’ll have a place of her own soon where she can stay up late coding if she wants without bothering anyone.

She is headed to San Diego City College as a student in the spring and plans to become a software engineer one day.

Duran is among the thousands of individuals in San Diego currently without stable housing. She is part of the population that makes up the heart of Voices of Our City Choir.

Diana Duran looks on intently as Steph Johnson walks the choir through an updated version of Feliz Navidad
Diana Duran looks on intently as Steph Johnson walks the choir through an updated version of Feliz Navidad. Photo by Kathryn Gray/City Times Media

Co-founded in 2016 by musician and grassroots activist Steph Johnson, the mission of Voices of Our City Choir is to provide healing and hope through music for the unhoused population in San Diego. Today, it has expanded beyond music to offer housing assistance, weekly outreach, case management and advocacy training.

“My heart always was with the people on the street for years,” Johnson said. “There was a moment in the spring of 2016 when I thought, I don’t need another organization to go out and do what I want to do. I want to just go out there and be a friend.”

Stories like Duran’s are more common than people think, says Johnson, now executive and creative director of the nationally recognized non-profit featured on America’s Got Talent in 2020 and in the 2018 PBS documentary “The Homeless Choir Speaks.”

During her first months of outreach, Johnson found the number of unhoused individuals she met with full-time jobs or full college class schedules was mind blowing. 

“Most of the people you see living on the streets unsheltered became so while living here,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of myths about homelessness. People think people come to San Diego unhoused but the reality is that wages aren’t enough, there’s not enough housing, there’s systemic racism, there are not enough health services, you name it.”

Overwhelmed by injustices faced by the unhoused community, Johnson used the instrument she knows best, her voice, to bring people together.

The choir began in what she describes as a small metal-roofed church at the corner of 13th and J streets “as a space for people to make music, to have good food, to use the restroom and to start to heal in between being ticketed on the street and chased away,” 

Since then, Voices of Our City Choir has helped over 70 of its members get into housing and is currently in talks to build their own residence, adding housing providers to the already lengthy list of services and resources they provide, according to Johnson.

“People need a place that they won’t be chased away from, that they can sit and seek to be safe so that they can start to get that cycle again of rest and then they can start to address the next steps,” Johnson said. “It is impossible to think that a person could navigate resources, transportation and all these other things when they are over and over again attacked and criminalized.”

Prior to the pandemic, explained Johnson, approximately 140 people were coming weekly to choir practice. About 75 are still attending with around 40 of them performing at various shows locally and around the state.

Weeks before Thanksgiving,  the choir was preparing for its benefit concert, “Hope for the Holidays.” Updated jazz-funk and reggae-infused versions of  “Little Drummer Boy” and “Feliz Navidad” permeated through the Living Water Church on the corner of Market and 16th streets.

Voices of Our City Choir practices for their upcoming holiday concert
Voices of Our City Choir practices for their upcoming holiday concert. Photo by Kathryn Gray/City Times Media

Monday morning practices kick off with an open discussion resembling a family meeting where members can share stories about past performances and ideas for future ones. It is followed by a hot nutritious meal provided by Kitchens for Good.

“They can just sit there and experience the music to the ability they want to and enjoy the lunch,” she said. “That to me is a step closer to at least being able to give that person some love and some respect.”

When not rehearsing songs for the upcoming concert, the choir can be heard singing original works, including America’s Got Talent golden buzzer winner “Sounds of the Sidewalk,” created during weekly pre-choir songwriting workshops.

At a mid-November songwriting workshop, Cindy Ingram fought back tears as she read an original piece. The woman, who was unhoused for a long period of time, thanked the group around the table made up of choir members and volunteers.

They helped show her how to love herself, she said.

A deeply spiritual Ingraham, comforted with a hug from fellow workshop member Christopher Edmonds, explained that songwriting was akin to prayer and poetry.

Christopher Edmonds embraces an emotional Cindy Ingram
Christopher Edmonds comforts fellow choir member Cindy Ingram during a weekly songwriting workshop. Photo by Kathryn Gray/City Times Media

“It could be rap, it could be a country song, it could be a poem,” Edmonds said. “Whatever the case may be, as long as it comes from your heart and what you have experienced in your reality it’s beautiful.”

Singing and performing are the catalysts that draws people to Voices of Our City Choir, Johnson explained, yet they stay for the healing and community.

“Voices of Our City Choir, whether it’s our live performances, our events, our advocacy, our outreach,” Johnson said, “it provides this safe environment. You can just meet people and know we are all one, that we are all unified by our humanity.”

The choir holds songwriting workshops at 9:30 a.m. and open practices at 11:00 a.m. followed by hot lunch at The Living Water Church of the Nazarene on Market and 16th streets every Monday. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, the space is dedicated to outreach and unhoused community members can visit to receive food or supplies.

The next Voices of Our City Choir performance, their annual benefit concert, “Hope for the Holidays,” takes place at the Music Box from 5:30-7:30 p.m. on December 5. 

To learn more about Voices of Our City Choir, visit Voicesofourcity.org, reach out by phone at (619) 738-1232 or email at [email protected]