Steph Johnson (second from left) and Voices of Our City co-founder Nina Deering (in hat holding sign) marched on March 18, 2017. Photo courtesy of Martha Sullivan

Three years before their “golden buzzer” moment on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” — sending them to Tuesday night’s quarter-finals — Voices of Our City Choir members marched downtown.

On Broadway, the group including unsheltered singers made noise behind a sign reading: ‘ALL SAN DIEGANS DESERVE A SAFE PLACE TO LIVE!”

Six months later, choir director Steph Johnson posted a chilling account of a homeless couple being awoken at 5:30 a.m., “cussed and yelled at and almost immediately arrested.”

No ticket or citation was given, she said on Facebook. “Straight to arrest.”

Johnson tore into Mayor Kevin Faulconer: “Why are you ordering the ticketing and arrests of people, throwing away their money, bank card, medicine, old family pictures – and then to only turn around and release the people back to the streets with nothing? What kind of sick and twisted place is San Diego?”

How things have changed, and not.

After appearing on AGT in May, the choir was cheered by Faulconer.

“What an incredible performance by some truly talented individuals,” he tweeted. “Congratulations to #VoicesOfOurCityChoir on getting this once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Choir director Johnson today is no less passionate in advocating for people experiencing homelessness. But she has tempered her criticism of the city.

In a Facebook Live post Saturday, she described sitting on an advisory board with the mayor.

“We try to influence our elected officials in a positive way to create policy that’s actually helpful — that’s actually going to make a difference,” she said.

Others who helped launch Voices of Our City aren’t so forgiving.

Martha Sullivan, who ferried members to safety aboard a 20-passenger bus, said in late May that Faulconer began “playing nice” with the choir after a 2018 documentary appeared on PBS.

“The choir has worked to build relationships with organizations and people across the spectrum in San Diego to advocate for unsheltered San Diegans, which is much more than can be said for Mayor Faulconer and his administration,” Sullivan said. “He and his administration continue to persecute unsheltered San Diegans, even in the midst of this global pandemic.”

Lori Saldaña, the former Assembly member who ran for Congress and challenged Faulconer for mayor, said she was astounded by his late arrival to the choir bandwagon.

“How cynical does this mayor have to be — after causing so much pain? … He clearly doesn’t think people retain records,” she said with a laugh.

Saldaña recalls picking up homeless choir members in early 2017 after a City Hall performance on a cold and rainy night.

“It was just so heartless,” she said. “He really thought he could shut them down by doing what he does with other people who are unsheltered. Cite them, give them criminal records, make their lives so miserable they’ll just disappear.”

She said in May that Faulconer would claim them now that they have national television exposure, “but he literally did try to drive them out of San Diego and silence them when they first showed up to perform at City Hall.”

Saldaña takes some credit for “radicalizing” Steph Johnson.

After her failed 2016 primary run for mayor, she and Johnson continued their activism that summer by setting up “rogue cooling stations” at Petco Park and Fault Line Park.

“Steph showed up at some of the protests we organized that summer. … Just because my campaign had ended, I didn’t want to end my advocacy for people who were homeless.”

Saldaña labeled as “miraculous” what Johnson’s done with the choir and for people being homeless.

She recalls Johnson taking part in the July 2016 protests when the All-Star Game came to Petco Park and sharp rocks were placed under the Imperial/I-5 bridge to discourage unsheltered San Diegans.

Johnson was among musicians invited to perform — busking near the ballpark — and make the point that it’s OK for some people to hang out on the street while others are arrested or told: You’re not welcome here, Saldaña said.

“Steph and some of her colleagues … got started out there,” she said. “And shortly after that we did a cooling station at Fault Line Park — the one that’s supposed to have public restrooms. And Steph showed up, and both of us tried to go use the restrooms at the restaurant, and both of us felt like we were looked at as if we were aliens from another planet.”

Looking back, she said, it’s wonderful to see Johnson’s transformation into a person “who wants to do something.”

Johnson “started out with this curiosity about politics, and this interest in activism,” Saldaña said. “And then I think as a result of seeing just how horrible Faulconer was acting, I think it just fired her up …. And not just Faulconer, the whole system.”

Another critic of Faulconer’s policies on homelessness is activist Michael McConnell.

After the May AGT show, which led to a major boost in choir fund-raising, McConnell told Times of San Diego that “it is interesting that [Faulconer] is promoting it at the same time his administration criminalizes homelessness.”

McConnell called it awesome that San Diego’s choir received the golden buzzer from host Terry Crews.

“Always good to have people sharing their stories on a national stage, but it is just one piece of building a larger movement for change on the homelessness crisis,” he said.

A city spokeswoman defended Faulconer.

“It’s unfortunate that someone who ran against the mayor and someone who waged a campaign against his plan to raise billions to help the homeless are turning this cause for celebration into another political attack,” said a statement to Times of San Diego.

“The reality is that it was the Voices of Our City choir who reached out in advance of the show to make sure the mayor knew about their big moment, and he was excited to join the rest of the city in rooting for their success,” the statement added. “The choir also reached out to request a phone call between its executive director and the mayor, and they had a great conversation [May 27]. The choir has worked hard and deserves to be nationally recognized for their talent.”

Faulconer has increased the level of engagement over the past few years between the city, service providers, the Regional Task Force on the Homeless and the leadership at the Voices of Our City Choir, the spokeswoman said.

“One of those individuals [John Brady] now serves on the board of the RTFH and the Leadership Council for the City’s strategic plan for homelessness. There is a greater understanding amongst our community of how we can work together to continue to shape San Diego’s system of care.”

She said San Diego was the only major county in the state to have reduced its numbers on homelessness in 2019, “and those number went down yet again in 2020. That only happens through working together to ensure solutions are effective.”

(Sullivan responded: “The drop in the number of unsheltered San Diegans in the Point in Time Count this past January is highly suspect given the documented increase in SDPD Enforcement in the two weeks before the count.”)

Johnson, who turns 40 soon, didn’t respond to requests in May for comment on Faulconer, and she wasn’t available to address queries Monday.

But she shared thoughts Saturday in a half-hour Q&A video posted on the choir’s Facebook page.

Asked by a commenter what her dream is, Johnson began by saying: “All I wanted is for the organization to be operative. We call it choir care. Anything to keep us connected with the choir.”

Later she detailed another goal — erecting a building of their own that includes housing, offices for the choir and a studio.

She and 40 members of the 225-person choir have been rehearsing in recent days at a hotel near the Universal Studios set where they’ll perform on the “live show” before three regular judges and one taking the place of executive producer Simon Cowell, recovering from a bike-accident-caused back injury.

“We wish Simon Cowell the most healing ever,” Johnson said, seated in front of a smart phone with one of her Tuesday night soloists — Jehlad Hickson, 25.

(She wish-listed other possible fill-in judges — Stevie Wonder or Tina Fey. Kelly Clarkson was last week’s quarterfinal judge, joining regulars Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel and Sofia Vergara. In fact, SNL’s Kenan Thompson got the call.)

Johnson said an “epic performance” is planned. “It’s so magical.”

Unable to practice together, “we’ve created all these work-arounds.” She described them to The San Diego Union-Tribune.

“Johnson and other leaders in the organization have created an intricate, somewhat tedious method that begins with arranging and recording four-part harmony with Andy Riggs and Mandi Miller, and then teaching singers their individual parts, one at a time, over Zoom,” said Gary Warth’s story Monday in the U-T.

Activist Sullivan said Monday that she plans to watch “AGT.”

“My hope is that Voices of Our City Choir continues to bring attention to the needs of unsheltered people,” she said. “I’m very proud of the choir I helped to get established in its first two years, and the on-the-ground assistance it continues to provide to unsheltered and poor San Diegans, especially during this global pandemic. It has literally saved lives.”

On social media, Johnson and others have been sharing information on how viewers can vote for the choir (up to 10 times) via various means. “Voting starts at 5pm PST. Voting ends midnight PST. You can vote 10 times per method.”

“We feel the love from San Diego,” Johnson said in the Facebook video, adding that if TV fans elevate the choir into the semifinals, “something kind of special is planned.”

To close the video, Johnson on her acoustic guitar and Hickson sang a Bob Marley song: “Don’t worry bout a thing. Everything’s going to be alright.”

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