How Singing In A Choir Helped Homeless People In San Diego Find Their Voice

“We need it like oxygen,” says one Voices Of Our City Choir member.
Willie, a Voices Of Our City Choir soloist, has been a member of the choir for two years.
Willie, a Voices Of Our City Choir soloist, has been a member of the choir for two years.

SAN DIEGO ― Ayoe Rydiander came across the choir entirely by coincidence. It was September last year in downtown San Diego, and Rydiander, 58, was frantic. The battery had gone dead on her phone and she was waiting to meet someone she’d paid to transport all of her belongings so she could move them into a storage unit.

She went into a church across the street to charge her phone, and that was when she spotted them ― several dozen people getting ready for their weekly choir rehearsal. “I was like, ‘Sign me up right away,’” she said.

Joining a choir had been on Rydiander’s bucket list for years. But the choir rehearsal she stumbled upon that day wasn’t just any rehearsal ― it was for Voices Of Our City Choir, a choir created for people experiencing homelessness in San Diego. Rydiander, at that point, had been homeless for about two months after losing her place to live and struggling with alcohol addiction. 

Ayoe Rydiander.
Ayoe Rydiander.

Voices Of Our City, which sings everything from “Over The Rainbow” to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” was co-founded in the summer of 2016 by professional guitarist Steph Johnson, 38, who set out to do something ― anything ― to address the increasingly evident homelessness crisis in San Diego, where she’d lived her whole life. From 2016 to 2017, the number of people living in tents and hand-built structures in downtown San Diego increased by 104 percent.

“Homelessness had just exploded,” Johnson told HuffPost. “So many more people were on the street. … I saw all these people getting arrested, and all their things getting thrown away.”

It all started for Johnson when she began going out to meet people living on the streets, playing music with them when the opportunity arose. “Just kind of hanging. Getting to know people,” she said. In doing so, she realized she had a lot of misconceptions about what it meant to be homeless. Many of the people she was meeting had jobs that they’d get up and go to every day, and many had kids ― some of whom were living with them on the streets.

Inspired by a woman she met who was part of a choir for homeless people in Chicago, Johnson decided to set up something similar in her home city. She sought out a church willing to host the weekly choir practices, and Voices Of Our City Choir was born. 

At the first choir practice, just one person showed up, Johnson said. The second, a few more people came, including John Brady.

Brady, 52, was living in an encampment in downtown San Diego just outside the Living Water Church of the Nazarene, where the choir rehearses. When he walked into the church that day, he didn’t plan on being part of the choir. He was only there because he’d agreed to help set up the church sound system.

“Then Steph roped me into sitting down and actually singing,” Brady said.

At that point, Brady had been homeless in San Diego for about a year. Before that, he’d lived in a string of other cities, holding a variety of high-powered jobs ― marketing consultant in Dallas; vice president of sales for a marketing agency in San Francisco.

But on Christmas Eve 2004, Brady was the victim of a homophobic hate crime. He was attacked in his car in West Hollywood and got 15 stitches in his face. It all went downhill from there.

John Brady. 
John Brady. 

“My mistake was, I really didn’t get good, solid, ongoing mental health treatment and support after that hate crime,” he said. “So I struggled with addiction on and off for a period of years.”

Before Brady joined Voices Of Our City, he’d attempted suicide multiple times. He was self-medicating with alcohol and drugs, and, despite being homeless himself, he was judgmental about other members of San Diego’s homeless community.

Since joining the choir ― and, he believes, in part thanks to the choir ― Brady said things have changed. He’s clean now, takes meds for his depression, and he said the choir has helped him understand that people on the streets are just like everyone else, “they just don’t have a door to hide their warts behind.”

Music and art humanizes homeless people ― in their own eyes as much as in the eyes of others, said Ryan Luhrs, assistant professor of music and director of choral activities at Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina, who has researched the impact singing together can have on people’s perceptions. 

Voices Of Our City Choir rehearsal, with co-founder Steph Johnson (bottom row, third from the left).
Voices Of Our City Choir rehearsal, with co-founder Steph Johnson (bottom row, third from the left).

Voices Of Our City now has over 160 members (up to 90 at any given rehearsal) from both the housed and homeless communities of San Diego, and has performed dozens of times, including at the San Diego Music Awards and alongside the San Diego Symphony. It has been featured in national publications and was the subject of a 2018 documentary “The Homeless Chorus Speaks” by filmmaker Susan Polis Schutz.

And Brady isn’t the only one to experience the transformative effect of the choir.

“I build my life around choir practice,” said Rydiander. “We need it like oxygen. It takes the place of addiction. I need another dose of choir every week.”

Since joining the choir, Rydiander has started on a path toward sobriety after years of alcoholism. She recently moved out of a shelter and into a sober living house.

“The confidence and strength that I gained through the choir … is what gave me the energy to go out in the community and research what was available to me,” she said. “I wasn’t broken anymore. It gave me strength I needed.”

Lots of choir members have similar stories, partly thanks to the web of programs that Voices Of Our City has developed to help connect its homeless members with services and get them off the street. 

From 2016 to 2017, the number of people living in tents and hand-built structures in downtown San Diego increased by 104 perc
From 2016 to 2017, the number of people living in tents and hand-built structures in downtown San Diego increased by 104 percent.

The choir, financially bolstered by donations and money from performances, has also formed its own advocacy program for the San Diego homeless community at large. Brady is now formally employed as the director of operations and advocacy at Voices Of Our City and has moved into his own apartment.

In response to what Brady and Johnson both describe as increasingly aggressive enforcement against homelessness in San Diego, including fines, encampment sweeps and arrests, the choir’s advocacy wing has launched a training program for members to speak publicly, including at city council meetings, about their experience of homelessness, helping amplify the voices of a community that’s often ignored.

“It’s one thing to talk down or badly about homeless people when they’re not present in a room,” Brady said. But when there are a half-dozen choir members filing into the meeting, speaking about their experience of life on the streets, it’s a different story, he added. “You can’t behave that way anymore.”

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