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June 07, 2018

A Home Away from Homelessness

PBS documentary offers a glimpse of the homelessness epidemic in America through stories of a homeless performance choir.

Juli Schafer
  • PBS
  • PBS
  • PBS

"We don't know their background upfront. We hold space for them in a loving way and invite them in. They can bring who they are."

Over four years ago, jazz musician Steph Johnson started an outreach to the homeless community in San Diego just a few blocks from where she lived. She took to the streets and approached people with a gentle spirit, offering food, water and something unique: an offer to come sing in a chorus every Friday, no strings attached.

"Who are you with?" asked both the curious and skeptical, if they even responded to her.

"I'm just on my own; I'm a musician. I play guitar and I sing," she said, handing out cards with the location. It started with six people and soon doubled. They sang, they played instruments, they formed unlikely friendships. And just like that the homeless performance choir, Voices of our City, was born.

Johnson and co-founder, Nina Leilani Deering, created the chorus to bring the homeless community together to have their voices heard in a world that usually turns a deaf ear towards them.

"Each person that I have helped is an individual and has their own issues. I try to connect with them. I see them with great potential," says Johnson. "We are not therapists; we are not social workers. We are able to connect through music," reinforces Deering who chooses songs with meaningful, relatable lyrics with messages of love and hope.

The Homeless Chorus Speaks (IronZeal Films, 2018) is a poignant, eye-opening documentary by critically acclaimed documentarian, Susan Polis Schutz. It provides a heart-wrenching glimpse into the tragic homeless emergency in America told through the eyes of the choir.

Homelessness is a national epidemic, particularly in California where the film is set. The annual count of homeless people in the U.S. has risen for the first time since 2010. The San Diego area has almost 9,000 people living in tents, on the streets and in cars.

Schutz, Blue Mountain greeting card creator and documentary film producer (Anyone and Everyone and It's "Just" Anxiety), interviewed 14 members of the Voices of Our City Choir. "We did not screen the people before I sat down with them. I didn't know what to expect. Truthfully I had never engaged a homeless person in conversation. Usually I use about one-third of the people in my other movies, but everyone was so eloquent. We used them all. They were honest. It was amazing."

The tales of the choir members' paths leave viewers with the sense that anyone could be one step away from being in their torn and tattered shoes. "This film is meant to strip away the judgement and avoidance most people with homes have when it comes to the topic of homelessness. It could happen to you, it could happen to anyone," says Schutz.

"I wanted to show how these people are so human, but they are being treated so inhumanely. The only thing I can think is to elect the right politicians to change the laws. There are wonderful advocacy groups, but the problem still exists," Schutz says to the question of how to help.

Schutz had no intention of starting another project. "I had finished my last film, It's "Just" Anxiety, which took five years to complete when I saw a short story on PBS news about the choir. I saw Janet singing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow.' It was so beautiful, I had tears. I went to a rehearsal. It was a hundred degrees in there and it was right in the middle of thousands of tents, it was so sad.

"But they were singing, and they were happy. I was so uplifted. When it was over, I realized they were going back to their tents and I thought, 'I don't care if I'm tired - this is a story that needs to be told.' It was so urgent to get out there. We did it in triple speed."

On the streets you're at war with everybody. "If you don't have a mental illness or PTSD before you hit the street you will definitely have it after a week because it's so dangerous. If you're homeless, you can't sit down, you can't lay down, you don't have a bathroom to use. You're ticketed or harassed," says Johnson.

"It is really hard to help folks that are experiencing homelessness because it isn't just one issue that got them there," she explains. "There's poverty, illness, anxieties, depression, addiction. We see someone getting ahead and reach out to the family. They're happy for them, but they just can't take that person back in again. There's history."

It strikes a chord with Johnson. "I grew up poor. My mother is disabled and lives in low-income housing. If it weren't for these programs and my grandmother taking me in, I would also be homeless, so I'm not that far removed from it."

The film is completely told by the interviews without any narration. People were eager to share their stories, to humanize a dehumanized population. "For a bunch of homeless people to bring out such a profound amount of love and strength that resonates through music is the most incredible journey that anybody could ever be on." says Mark K., a heart attack and stroke survivor.

Diane, 58, works as a dog washer. "I can't work with humans at this point because humans have failed me. Dogs love me, I love them." She has a bachelor's and two master's degrees. She had planned on being a teacher but suffered a vicious attack. "I climbed back because I know that there is something God wants me to accomplish. I have to be out here to help other people who have been through the same things I have been through but have not recovered."

"Every person I interviewed wants to help others in a homeless crisis, much more so than the politicians," says Schutz.

"The choir has been life changing for me. It's been healing. They love me more than my own family ever did," says Brook, a 23-year-old abuse victim who was on the streets alone for a year. "We are people. We have feelings just like everybody else."

Janet, 61, is recently blind. "I had great jobs. I was a registered nurse, a teacher's assistant and I worked with disabled kids. Then I lost my sight to glaucoma and trauma to my head and I'm forced to live on an income of $900 a month. A one-bedroom will cost you that so how are you supposed to eat or pay electricity?"

"Everybody that's on the street, the first thing people think is you're a drug addict or an alcoholic, but then there's people like me. There's people out there who work every day who are sleeping on the sidewalk and in tents because you can't afford a place. I put in for subsidized housing. There is a waiting list for two to 10 years. I went to a shelter every day for three months and I'm still on the street."

Schutz attributes the epidemic of homelessness to many reasons. "All the interviewees say rent is so expensive. A lot of them are working but still can't afford a [place]. Every one of the people that I interviewed has post traumatic stress syndrome or some mental illness because of the trouble they've had in their lives. One of the guys had a business and his wife died. He couldn't do it, now he's on the street," adds Schutz. (That person, Antonio, is getting his master's degree while living on a bench.)

The choir is more than a place to go sing every Friday. It gives its members purpose. If someone doesn't show up, the group looks for them to make sure they are all right.

"There is something phenomenal, you know, to have people living on the street and bring them together to perform on stage and feel good about where they're at in their lives. And that's what the choir enables the members to do. Myself included." Richard, 57, Veteran and published poet.

"In some way or another homelessness will impact you, whether you notice it or not. It can impact our neighborhood, our children, [our] nation. We're all connected, and when we start feeling that we're not, that's when we're creating serious problems for humanity. The dehumanization of people is one of the most dangerous things that we face not only in this country, but in the world."

Schutz shows the magnitude of what it's really like to live on the street. Trash trucks smash tents and all the belongings inside of them. People use the sidewalk as a mattress and rocks for a pillow. Police tape ropes off an area where another life was taken.

"Homeless people are PEOPLE. People that need help. Some don't know how to get off the streets. I'm very positive that I will get it together and build something for my children." Judah, proud husband and father of 6, all living in one tent and homeschooling in the public library.

John, a 52-year old once-successful event producer with an MBA was the victim of a hate crime. He spiraled downhill and self-medicated with methamphetamines. He admits he made bad decisions. He is now the Choir Production Manager and assists in outreach. The choir doesn't look or sound "homeless." "People come in, their expectations are low, and then we kind of knock it out of the ballpark."

Today the chorus is over 50 people strong and has put 25 people into housing. They are applying for non-profit status in hopes of being able to help many more. Through paying choir jobs, they now have a van and equipment.

The choir members were understandably nervous at the screening of the film, worrying how they were going to be portrayed, but when they saw it, they loved it. Updates scroll at the end of the film, but Schutz informs that she will have to revise them because things change so quickly.

But most of the news is good. "The impact of music on depression is amazing," shares a tearful Nina Deering. "We have so many people who have come to me in tears who say, 'Before today I wanted to kill myself every moment. And somehow I feel different now.'"

Johnson adds "It's incredible. Who would've thought you could start a choir and though music accomplish something like that?"


Check for listings on local PBS stations and ironzeal.org.


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