Documentary puts national spotlight on homeless choir

The Voices of Our City homeless choir has performed at churches, theaters, public spaces and many other venues throughout San Diego since forming in 2016, and their audience is about to go nationwide.

An hour-long documentary, “The Homeless Chorus Speaks,” will bring the story of the choir to public television stations across the country this year and is scheduled to air locally March 22 at 8:30 p.m. on KPBS.

Local fans of the choir can hear them perform live and watch the documentary together March 28 at 6:45 p.m. in the Neil Morgan Auditorium of the San Diego Central Library.

A preview of the film, screened Thursday at the auditorium, ended with a standing ovation from the audience.

“This choir has helped people so much,” said filmmaker Susan Polis Schutz. “It’s like a family.”

Through interviews and performances shown in the film, the dual effect of the choir becomes clear; while the group raises the public’s awareness of homelessness in the city, it also has a profound effect on the singers themselves.

“The choir means really everything to me,” said a man identified in the film as Mark S., 54. “I see a movement that I’m a part of — to care for your fellow man a little more.”

“The choir makes me want to live,” said Brian, 54. Others in the film also said they had considered suicide, but they had a better outlook on life through singing with others.

Guitarist and singer Steph Johnson co-founded the choir in 2016 with Nina Leilani Deering.

“Steph and I are not social workers,” Deering said in the film. “We’re not therapists.”

But Deering acknowledges the effect they have had on the lives of the choir members. At the screening, Johnson revealed that the impact was more than emotional. In the past year, she said, they’ve helped house 26 people.

This is the seventh documentary Schutz has made in the past decade. Besides making films, she and her husband, Stephen Schutz, founded the Colorado-based company Blue Mountain Arts, which has sold more than 450 million books and greeting cards.

After completing her last film, “It’s ‘Just’ Anxiety,” Schutz said she had planned to take a year off. The day after making that vow, however, she saw a KPBS piece on the choir.

“I thought it was absolutely beautiful,” she said. “And of course, seeing all the homeless people in San Diego is just heartbreaking.”

Intrigued by what she saw, Schutz attended one of the choir’s weekly Friday afternoon rehearsals and met Johnson and Deering.

She was impressed with what she heard, but also struck by the impact the choir had on the singers.

“For a few seconds, these people who live in the streets, kind of forget all that and were very uplifted and happy,” she said. “When I saw that, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I just have to look into this. Why are they on the street and what can we do?’”

Schutz interviewed 14 choir members, with each telling their story of how they became homeless.

Brook, 23, said her mother died of a drug overdose and her father was abusive. John, 52, has a masters degree in business administration and owned his own production company until he was the victim of a hate crime, which set him on a downward spiral of drug use.

Janet, 61, had been a registered nurse before losing her eyesight to glaucoma and a head injury. At the time of her interview, she said she had been trying to check into a shelter every day for three months, but there was never room.

Despite her situation, she showed a soft smile during her interviews and clearly found joy in singing her favorite song with the choir.

“When I sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ you forget all of your problems,” she said. “You forget you’re on the street, all your hurt and pain and everything. It’s like I’m in another world.”

Schutz and Johnson said they hope the film and the choir will give people a better understanding of the homeless.

“One of the points of my film is that these people are like you and me,” Schutz said.

“(The choir) was created for all of us, because we all want a solution,” Johnson said. “We all want to see something positive happening, and it’s going to happen by learning the individual stories of people who are experiencing homelessness, by getting up close next to your unsheltered neighbors and their brothers, sisters, sons and daughters.”

Deborah Najera, a choir member who isn’t in the film but was at the screening, shared her story with her fellow audience members Wednesday. A former dental assistant who also has a degree in information technology, Najera said she had to stop working because of arthritis and carpel tunnel syndrome.

“If you see some homeless people, just don’t think we’re all alcoholics or drug addicts,” she said. “I don’t have any of those problems. I just have bad hands. And if it could happen to me, it could happen to you.”

Najera, who moved into an apartment about two weeks ago, said she had been homeless 27 months and at times was living in her car.

“The police said, ‘You know we could put you in jail for sleeping in your car,’” she said. “I said, ‘You should be protecting me.’ This is a change I’d like to see happen. Instead of harassing, protect us. I’m not a bum. I paid taxes for 44 years.”

The discussion after the screening, which was attended by candidates and officials on the local, state and national level, got political at times.

“What can be done?” Schutz said. “Elect the right people. I hope this will educate people, to show them that it’s not their choice to live on the street. They’re forced to live on the streets. They’re arrested, and politicians are to blame.”

Schutz said the documentary was in a way the easiest film she had ever done because the people she interviewed were so eloquent. The most challenging part was getting the rights to all the songs in the film, which included “Lean On Me,” “We Are Family,” “What’s Going On” and several others, she said.

Twitter: @GaryWarthUT


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