Voices of Hope

San Diego organization brings opportunity through song

Music has the power to heal and transform. It lifts us up, offers hope, and gives us a form of expression where words often fail. And for those experiencing homelessness, music can provide a sense of community while empowering minds, strengthening bodies, and setting the stage for healing.

Voices of Our City Choir, founded in 2016 by San Diego musicians Steph Johnson and Nina Derring, celebrates the potential of every individual and serves as a space for mutual aid and community building. It also gives voice to our homeless community, both past and present.

“About two years ago, I got a group of friends together who wanted to join me in the outreach I had been doing, connecting with our unsheltered neighbors through music, food, and friendship,” explains Johnson. “Around the summer of 2016, the City of San Diego had a major homelessness crisis. After meeting so many artists in the street, my friend Nina had the idea to start a choir.” Their first rehearsal on August 22, 2016 had four people. “To put that in perspective, our latest rehearsal topped 85,” says Johnson.

On average, 65 people currently sing with Voices of Our City Choir every Friday, and 25 to 30 people perform in shows at The Music Box and the House of Blues, as well as at conferences and festivals. In addition to open choir rehearsal, VoOCC also offers offer a songwriting workshop led by Leaf Weigel, along with a guitar workshop with Ricky Giordano sponsored by Taylor Guitars.

In less than two years, VoOCC’s list of accomplishments is impressive. To protect its members’ stability, Johnson says a supporter “took the entire choir indoors and we began a shelter early last year.” The group is currently celebrating its 30th and 31st choir members getting off the street and into safe housing or a shelter. And its documentary film, The Homeless Chorus Speaks, airs regularly nationwide on PBS. VoOCC is performing four concerts this summer with the San Diego Symphony, and just last month it officially became a nonprofit.

To keep the programs running, donations are key. “We deliver 1,000 pounds of food a week to people in need,” says Johnson. “We offer continual support and connection to services through our own choir care employee, who we hired to help us better advocate for our choir members in crisis.”

Johnson says she is extremely grateful for the community support they have received. “Everything that is happening for the choir and our members makes us well up with tears of joy and gratitude. If you’d like to see what we do, we invite everyone to our Friday choir rehearsals [11am-12:30pm at 1550 Market Street, San Diego]. There, you can see and feel that we are all family.”

A special Voices of Our City Choir performance takes place at 1pm on Saturday, July 14, at Flower Hill Promenade as part of the center’s “Growing Kindness inSunshine” summer initiative. voicesofourcity.org        MIA S. PARK