Note: This story has been updated to reflect upcoming events.
SALT LAKE CITY — San Diego-based musician Steph Johnson, who will be playing two shows in Salt Lake this week, started the Voices of Our City Choir in the summer of 2016 for people experiencing homelessness in the San Diego area.
But after their first concert, law enforcement ticketed the entire choir for encroachment and took one person to jail.
"The whole vibe with the group, the stability we were hoping to build within this group, … totally evaporated (following their citation)," Johnson said. "And we realized that shelter and housing was the only way to protect these people."
Though the choir briefly fell apart when she went on tour that September, Johnson said because of her friends and connections on the street, she was able to get the choir back together, helping it grow into "a beautiful experience" where sometimes as many as 70 people come to rehearsals. Though they initially met only every other week, they now meet every Friday, with a smaller performance choir meeting on Mondays.
Johnson's choir was the subject of the documentary, "The Homeless Chorus Speaks," that aired last year on KUED. Filmmaker Susan Polis Schutz's documentary featured the Voices of Our City Choir "as a vehicle to tell the stories of people suffering with homelessness … (and) effectively puts a human face on a crucial problem and makes it strikingly clear just how easily someone can end up living on the streets," according to a quote on the choir's website.
Singing with family
Johnson said she and her friend Nina Leilani Deering became fully aware of the "hundreds and hundreds" of people living on the streets during the summer of 2016, prompting her to begin attending lectures about the housing crisis. She also began noticing homeless people being arrested and ticketed and learned about the hepatitis A outbreak connected to the lack of housing.
Johnson gave a presentation at a city council meeting about the difficulties homeless people face but still felt her elected officials weren't doing enough. She started a foundation and built a garden on a top of homeless shelter, where she connected with homeless people by playing music, particularly soul, funk and jazz. Because of her foundation, a local church called and asked if she'd like to use their facilities for free. She immediately called Deering and the two of them began the choir that Friday.
In addition to music and a community, the choir also provides resources such as food, clothing and housing. Johnson said they've had some "crazy successes" in the last year and a half, such as helping 27 of their singers secure their own housing, according to the choir's website.
"The group is so happy to be singing and so happy to be with family," Johnson said. "That's what we've become, we really feel, is family. And our goal is to empower people to feel better so that they can take care of whatever they need to take care of."
Lives before the streets
Schutz first heard about the Voices of Our City Choir through a PBS national news story that aired at the end of 2016. She decided to attend a choir practice, where she "absolutely fell in love with (the choir)."
Though Schutz had just begun a yearlong hiatus from filmmaking, she decided immediately that she couldn't wait a year to address such a pressing issue. She also felt she needed to make the film in double time — about 9 months, "which was unbelievable," she said.
Schutz contacted Johnson in January 2017, and filming began in February 2017. She interviewed 14 choir members, asking them the same 50 questions plus whatever else she felt was relevant. (Of those 14 people, Johnson said about half are still with the choir while the other half have since moved on in some way.) Editing down 100 hours of tape to one hour was difficult, she said, "because so much of what they said was amazing."
As she interviewed the choir members, she also realized that they did not embody commonly held stereotypes about homeless people, such as they're simply lazy or on drugs.
"They were not like that," she said. "They were so eloquent. Some of them had three jobs but they couldn't make ends meet. Many of them had mental or physical problems, they just couldn't handle it and they had nowhere to go so they're on the streets, and then many just lost a job." For example, she interviewed two registered nurses who had lost their jobs, as well as two people with master's degrees.
"So pretty much what I came out with, and what I think other people will come out with when viewing it, is that when you see a homeless person … you're only seeing a part of their life," Schutz said. "All these people had lives before they were on the streets."
Telling their stories
It can be easy for people to lump the homeless into a single group rather than remember that they are individuals with individual stories — people with dreams, lives, passions and talents who deserve to be heard. Johnson recalled a friend who referred to the homeless population as the "walking wounded" and said she's known some choir members who the police won't help when they're attacked on the street because they're homeless.
"That's what I hope people get from (the film), is that … you can see that any of that could happen to you, and how would you react?" she said. "We only do better in life if we have a community and a family around us, people who believe in us and support us."
According to Johnson, films about homelessness, like "The Homeless Chorus Speaks," are important for educating the public on homeless issues, and while changing perceptions is going to take "a lot of concerts and a lot of music," Johnson said, it's helping people see that criminalizing homeless people is not working.
"Because of the film, people are listening," she said. "When we go to a meeting with the city, people know that we're from this choir and that we are growing in community support. … There's always a pressure that we can put on our (elected officials) with the community."
She continued that ordinary people can combat the homeless problem by supporting organizations like theirs, going to city council meetings and lectures or simply saying "Hello," or "How are you?" to a homeless person.
Schutz also encouraged people to elect the right politicians that will end homelessness.
"It's such a tragedy, the way (homeless people) are treated," she said. "Besides regular people disparaging them, the city's disparaged them. I wanted to strip away the judgment and the avoidance that most people have regarding the homeless and (help the public) realize that what happened to (homeless people) can happen to everybody."Comment on this story
Though the choir is currently not in a position to tour, Johnson encouraged people to follow them on Facebook and come to a show if possible; they're also working on a grant for the performance choir to sing works by artists who have experienced homelessness, such as Ella Fitzgerald and some classical artists.
"The change that I wanted to make has completely blown our minds," Johnson said. "Because of our music, because of the film we made with Susan, because of our concerts, people are joining us and helping.
If you go …
What: Steph Johnson Trio
When: Tuesday, June 11, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Alibi Bar and Place, 369 Main Street
When: Wednesday, June 12, 7 p.m.
Where: The Rabbit Hole, 155 W. 200 South
Note: Alibi Bar and Place, and The Rabbit Hole are 21 and older establishments