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Steph Johnson says there’s a perception problem when it comes to homelessness.
The local jazz musician founded Voices of Our City Choir in 2016. In the beginning, Johnson simply wanted to provide an artistic outlet for people sleeping on the streets. She found a rehearsal space and invited homeless people to sing with her once a week.
The project, though, has morphed into an advocacy group that works to humanize homelessness, build empathy for people experiencing it and advocate for change.
In a new episode of Culturecast, Voice of San Diego’s podcast covering arts and culture in the region, I talk to Johnson and three choir members about how the chorus has become a powerful voice in San Diego. (Stream or download the episode, or subscribe via iTunes here.)
“I think the choir does this really cool job of waking the audience up to see who is experiencing the crisis,” Johnson said.
Media coverage of the choir has fueled its growth. Johnson said more than 50 people now show up at rehearsals in the East Village every Friday morning. The group is also getting booked to perform paid gigs at churches, community festivals and other events around town.
When they’re not rehearsing or performing, Johnson and some members of the choir are talking to City Council members or otherwise advocating for policies they think can help.
Johnson said the choir wants the city to stop ticketing homeless people and confiscating their property when it’s left on sidewalks or other public places. She said they’d like to see the city quickly find the right location for its proposed storage facility so that homeless people can securely keep their belongings.
“The advocacy portion of the choir is more than likely what kept me going with it,” said singer Jeff Hayes.
Hayes was in information technology for 20 years. But then he got sick, blew through his retirement savings and ended up on the streets. He joined the choir and said the community he found there has helped him navigate the bureaucratic process of getting into subsidized housing.
Johnson said so far the choir has helped connect 27 of its members to shelters and housing.
Filmmaker Susan Polis Schutz made a documentary about the choir and its advocacy work. It’s called “The Homeless Chorus Speaks” and it airs on KPBS Television at 8:30 p.m. this Thursday. On March 28, the documentary will screen at 6:45 p.m. at the San Diego Central Library’s Neil Morgan Auditorium downtown.
Johnson said the choir’s performances are its most important advocacy tool. She said the gigs are entertaining — their set list is secular and includes popular songs — but also work to connect the audiences with people experiencing homelessness.
“The audience is always blown away when they see the people standing in the choir, and they look just like them,” Johnson said. “They go, ‘Wow, that person doesn’t have a house and they’re being criminalized and this thing could happen to me.’”
You’re reading the Culture Report, Voice of San Diego’s weekly collection of the region’s cultural news.
Symphony for Kids
Taking small children to arts events is always a gamble. We parents hope our kids will behave, but we just never know when hunger, tiredness or just general crankiness will strike.
And strike it often does.
With some trepidation, I took my 3-year-old to the symphony last Sunday. The San Diego Symphony family concerts series is fairly affordable, offers hands-on activities for the kids and short, classical music performances that keep the little ones entertained. Yes, there were some audible meltdowns during the show, but mostly the little ones were intrigued.
Sunday’s concert centered on the recognizable music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Actors from San Diego Junior Theatre helped bring to life the concepts behind some of the composer’s most famous works. After the show, my 3-year-old said, “That was awesome.”
Needless to say, I gave both myself (parenting success!) and the symphony a high-five for a job well done.
Sunday’s show was the last family concert in the San Diego Symphony’s current season. The 2018-19 season will be announced in coming months, so be sure to check out the next batch of offerings for the kiddos.
Architecture Tours, Circus on Ice and More News and Events
• Open House San Diego is back this weekend. The San Diego Architectural Foundation’s annual event opens up access to more than 80 interesting sites, including Mercado del Barrio in Barrio Logan, The Abbey in Bankers Hill and Moniker Commons in Point Loma.
• In April, Little Italy’s 1805 Gallery will launch a new exhibition series that takes place inside the elevators at the Porto Vista Hotel. “It is an opportunity for unexpected encounters with contemporary art to occur while offering an intimate and unusual space to contemplate a work of art,” wrote curator Lauren Siry in an email.
• Cirque du Soleil is bringing its first-ever show on ice to San Diego this week. (Union-Tribune)
• San Diego Rep’s world premiere of “Beachtown” is an interactive new theatrical work that requires the audience to debate and then vote. “The piece, directed by Rep artistic chief Sam Woodhouse, is so participatory that attendees are even invited to bring an item for a community pot luck to be held right on the stage of the Rep’s Lyceum Theatre,” writes Union-Tribune theater critic James Hebert. San Diego Rep also announced its new season.
• Meet women in San Diego who create art as a form of activism.
• The San Diego History Center and the Mesa College School of Fashion and Design have partnered up for a new exhibit. (Union-Tribune)
• Here are the winners of the 2018 San Diego Music Awards. (Union-Tribune)
• Tuesday marks the first official day of spring. The San Diego Museum Council put together a handy newsletter rounding up some exhibitions and other events that are fitting for the vernal equinox.
• Learn more about the themes in the Old Globe’s world premiere of “American Mariachi.” (KPBS)
• Black Xpression, the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art and the San Diego History Center have teamed up for a jam-packed event.
• The Old Globe is hosting a national “Shakespeare in Prisons” conference. (Union-Tribune)
• In this half ad, half editorial post, San Diego Magazine writes a love letter to tacos and announces a new contest in which San Diegans are asked to submit their own taco recipes.
• The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s exciting “eXit pARTy” series includes hands-on activities, performance art, cocktails, music and more.
• A San Diego breakdancer who goes by the name Roxrite is well-known in the urban dance community. The Centro Cultural de la Raza is celebrating the local b-boy’s 100th dance contest win at a fundraising event this week.
• Local artist Gloria Muriel’s murals can be seen in San Diego and Tijuana. See her work in a gallery setting at her solo show opening this week.
• Hear experimental music in an old church at Arts District Liberty Station.
• Celebrate the art of puppetry in City Heights on Sunday.
• Here’s a look at a large-scale art installation coming soon to the San Diego International Airport. (Portland Press Herald)
• Here’s a look at North Coast Repertory Theatre’s upcoming season.
• This North Park art exhibition is an example of what happens when art meets science.
• And this new art exhibition at the San Diego Art Institute opens with a dance party.
Food, Cannabis, Beer and Booze News
• California’s attempt to shut down illegal cannabis operators reveals how large the black market remains, according to my colleague Jesse Marx. We also interviewed two dispensary owners as part of our new “potcast” series and talked to Voice’s Maya Srikrishnan about how cannabis is changing northern Mexico.
• On Wednesday, some of the Voice of San Diego crew will be at Mike Hess Brewing in North Park for our next Brews & News event.
• CityBeat’s new cannabis column points pot newbies to the strains that are the least likely to freak them out.
• Sample food from Bankers Hill restaurants at this annual food, beer and arts festival.
• Eater says y’all should try these five new restaurants.
Kinsee Morlan is engagement editor at Voice of San Diego. Email her at email@example.com with arts and culture news and tips. Want to recommend this culture newsletter to someone? Share this sign-up link. Subscribe to the San Diego Culturecast podcast.