Aug. 24 2016 12:50 AM

Could a choir put a human face on the issue?

Rob Thorsen observes a choir member playing his bass
Photo by Steph Johnson

Two days before last week's San Diego Homeless Awareness Day I went to East Village looking for the Living Water Church. I couldn’t find a sign but did see an open door on what seemed to be the right block, so I went in. It was hot and dimly lit. The faint sound of singing came from atop a flight of stairs. Yes, this was the place where the Voices of Our City Community Choir was meeting. Today was just the second practice for the choir, created for people experiencing homelessness as well as those who support and embrace the community.

Organizer Steph Johnson, a local jazz singer with a big, soulful voice, is sitting in a row of folding chairs with four others, all holding song sheets. One man is in a wheelchair, eating a snack while he sings. Another man stares intently at a printed lyric sheet, struggling to keep up.

Nina Leilani is playing a keyboard and bassist Rob Thorsen keeps a beat. The group is hesitantly but earnestly running through Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World”:

“I see skies of blue and clouds of white; The bright blessed day; the dark sacred night; And I think to myself what a wonderful world.”

I can still close my eyes and hear their rendition in my head. In a phone call after the practice I ask Johnson why she picked “Wonderful World.”

“It’s a classically beautiful and poignant song,” she says. “And it’s such a contrast—because some of these people are experiencing the least wonderful part of the world.”

And that’s partly what CityBeat and the roughly two-dozen media outlets participating in San Diego Homeless Awareness Day were attempting to portray on August 17. It’s hard to say exactly how you’d measure the level of success of this endeavor to flood the market with stories about one very important issue, but to peruse a collection of the coverage go to

To recap, the idea to create a media coalition was spawned up north, by San Francisco Chronicle Editor In Chief Audrey Cooper. She reports that San Francisco had 70 media outlets participate in a June 29 media flood, and that a planning contingent is meeting next month to discuss a follow-up day of coverage for after Thanksgiving.

I ask Cooper in an email if she thinks this idea has the potential to go to a national level. She’s skeptical. “Major outlets have to sign on for this to be successful, and I know a lot of editors who don’t like to play nicely with others,” she writes.

Either through coalitions or singular efforts, the challenge is to communicate to the public about pragmatic solutions and best practices that already exist and are reducing homelessness in other cities and states in the country. Ticketing and herding people from one neighborhood to another are the old-school methods doomed to fail. Housing-first efforts work better and save municipalities money in the long run.

Difference of opinion on this appears to boil down to perception of who the people are who live in tents and encampments on city streets. Scroll through a comment section under a web story about the issue and you’ll invariably find the troll point of view: They’re all drug addicts and lazy bums unworthy of aid.

But nothing is that black and white. The majority of homeless people have been caught in a downward spiral that might include mental or physical illness, job loss, addiction or dozens of other inhibiting factors.

It’s certainly nothing to sing about. Which brings us back to Steph Johnson. I’d gone down to the church in East Village to see if her choir was something ready for TV cameras, to help spread the message of San Diego Homeless Awareness Day. It isn’t—not yet.

But she wants to grow the group and ultimately send a message. Anyone—other musicians, the general public, those experiencing homelessness—can come to the Living Water Church and sing on the first and third Mondays of the month at 2 p.m. (Note: The address is 403 13th St., but the entrance is on J Street.)

Johnson is planning for a December show of some sort. “I think a bitchin’ choir giving a great performance could give this issue a face and a human quality,” she says. “It could change perception. Show people they are just like us.”

What a wonderful world that would be.


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