By Chris Stone
Janet Bolden is blind and homeless. A hit-and-run victim, she’s also been robbed.
But one day this fall she met Steph Johnson, who was handing out food and making a perfect pitch: Can you sing?
So began a journey that brought Bolden “through a nightmare” and into a dream — Sunday night’s debut public performance of the Voices of Our City Choir.“There has been bad luck, bad times,” Bolden said at Bread & Salt, the Logan Heights arts center in the former Weber’s Bread building. There she and other homeless San Diegans performed at Johnson’s holiday show that included food, wine, massages and face-painting.
What do you give a homeless person for Christmas?
Sunday night, Johnson gave members a chance to shine in their first San Diego concert. More valuable than what’s found under a tree — the gifts were hope, confidence and a sense of community.
Meeting “amazing and phenomenal” homeless advocate Johnson on the corner of 14th and J Streets “really touched my heart,” Bolden said. “She has really reached out and helped me in every way.”
At Bread & Salt, beaming choir members were clean-shaven and in their holiday best. They received a standing ovation from about 300 people after Leilani directed the choir in songs including U2’s “Love Rescue Me,” Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and Johnson’s “Music is Art.”
The Step Johnson Band — Curtis Taylor, trumpet; Kamau Kenyatta, rhodes/soprano sax; Gregory Moore, guitar; Tonga Ross-Ma’u, rhodes/organ; Rob Thorsen, bass; and Fernando Gomez, drums — started out the evening with jazz. Then the choir joined them.
Sunday’s concert is just the beginning.
Since seeing the choir’s story featured on KPBS and in The San Diego Union-Tribune, Johnson says her phone has been ringing off the hook with offers of food and bookings.
“This week has been crazy — with opportunities and offers for us to perform and I’ve never, ever had my phone blow up as much,” said Johnson, 36. “So I think that means critical-mass time. All these signs are pointing to go-go-go.”
She said the president of the San Diego Rescue Mission came to a rehearsal, “and he’s offered to donate food, which is incredible.”
“We get to heal ourselves through the music and through coming together in community,” she said. “And then we get to perform for our community.”
She’s become friends with people who have been “kicked out of a library, people who have been kicked out of places because they are homeless.”
Being homeless is “exhausting emotionally, physically. That’s a disaster. And they’re stressed. They’re strapped,” said Johnson, who protested the sharp rocks being placed under a bridge where the homeless slept. It was the eve of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game at Petco Park.
“Homelessness is up 80 percent in the past year,” she said. “We all know that, right?”
The choir recently has grown to about 25 members, with about two-thirds of them homeless, as the word of the choir has spread through downtown. (The group is open to all.) Fifteen members performed Sunday.
And looking down the road, Johnson sees possibilities of cutting a record, becoming a nonprofit, fundraising and finding housing. Even creating a farm where the homeless can work, produce and sell organic food that they themselves can eat.
“There’s something positive and joyful that’s happening,” Johnson said. “And it’s just a win-win for everybody.”
Members are developing confidence.
“They’re just joyful,” she said. “They have something they’re contributing to. And they can see it having this positive effect. … They’re remembering their worth and their value to a community and to society. Being homeless, there’s nothing that’s telling them [their value].”
It’s joy and sense of community that has impacted the homeless members the most, they said.
Bolden said Johnson touched her heart.
“The Lord has put so many positive people in my life,” Bolden said. “It makes me feel there is a God, that there are still people who have a heart and are compassionate.”
She spends her day humming choir songs and praying. Choir has become family.
Agreeing was choir member Mark Sheetz, 53, who says he is a songwriter.“It gives me hope,” he said. He lives in a shelter, and singing “gets me through the hard times.”
“We’re becoming a community,” he said.
Choir member Mark Kaleimamahu, 58, a military veteran, said: “It gives (the homeless) something to do besides being homeless.”
Living on the streets is a “dangerous, dangerous way of life,” he said. The choir helps people move forward — he added. “For people who don’t want to be homeless anymore, this is such an open door.”
The choir rehearses every other week at Living Water Church of the Nazarene downtown thanks to help from pastor Chris Nafis.
Johnson said, “It means so much to me to … finally feel that I have found something that is big enough and open enough that it can invite in people to really heal.
“It’s not just passing out a sandwich … and a pair of socks on the street. This is like something that people come to multiple times a month.”
Homelessness is very hard to escape, she said.
“The only way I can see that changing is if they felt in their heart again that they had the confidence and the ability to contribute and be a part of society. And to be bringing back who they are.”
“I see it happening. I see it happening through friendship.”
Choir member Jeff Hays, 58, said, “We’re showing a face of the homeless that has not been readily apparent to others.”
Singing in the group has given him a sense of fulfillment, and he enjoys the camaraderie.
“This is unique because it shows that the homeless and nonhomeless can meet together on common ground, which is music,” Hays said.
Before the concert, Johnson was a bit apprehensive.
“This is a shared concert, right? … Will people be kind? Will it be a warm experience? So far, I think it has been. I’m just so proud of them. They look beautiful.”
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