Maintaining mental health is a huge undertaking for those experiencing extreme and chronic stressors such as homelessness. Studies show that music offers a host of healing benefits. Its therapeutic effects for those recovering from addiction, cancer survivors, and traumatized refugees have been widely documented.
Voices of Our City Choir is a unique San Diego-based program helping nurture the mental health of unsheltered residents through the healing power of music. Their choir consists of 250 members. A third are currently experiencing homelessness. A third have experienced homelessness in the past or are living in poverty and supportive housing. And a third are people who have been affected by homelessness and want to be part of a solution.
“It’s intentionally part of what we’re doing because if you were able to attend our rehearsals or performances, you wouldn’t be able to look up and see who’s homeless and who is not,” said John Brady, the organization’s director of advocacy and outreach.
Before becoming homeless, Brady held several high-powered professional positions in the corporate world, such as marketing consultant and vice president of sales. But on Christmas Eve 2004, his life changed when he became the victim of a homophobic hate crime in West Hollywood. The attack earned him 15 stitches in his face. Without consistent mental health support after the assault, Brady struggled with intermittent addiction for years. When he joined the choir in the fall of 2016, he had spent nearly a year living on the streets of San Diego, suffering from depression and addiction.
A Social Network of Emotional Support
Originally, the Voices of Our City Choir’s vision was to create a safe space for people to express themselves artistically. But after their first public performance in December 2016, the choir quickly became an in-demand performance group. The founders started a shelter for 14 choir members who were ticketed for being homeless and one member who was arrested the day after a performance.
“This led us to engaging in our choir members’ recovery process and building our case management team,” said Brady. The choir was even featured in a nationally distributed documentary.
Prior to the pandemic, the group hosted two weekly choir rehearsals, a songwriting workshop and guitar lessons. The choir had become a social network of emotional support, as well as a support system for unsheltered members and those living in poverty. When COVID-19 became a public emergency, the group quickly took action, practicing physical distancing by creating Zoom and Facebook events.
“We do a dance workout online as well as cooking classes, social support, and we’ve added a few advocacy and networking programs so that people can connect and help choir members through this time,” said Brady.
Voices of Our City ‘Is Like Oxygen to Me’
Ayoe Rydiander is a Voices of Our City Choir member who has continued sessions with the group via the Internet. “It is like Oxygen to me,” Rydiander said. “When I walk into choir rehearsal, I take a big breath and feel rejuvenated and energized. The choir gives me the strength to handle anything coming my way.”
After losing her job in September 2016, Rydiander left an abusive relationship and became homeless. Despondent and frazzled, she was transporting her belongings to a storage unit when she realized her phone battery had died. While walking to the church across the street to charge her phone, she noticed people preparing for choir rehearsal next door. At that point, Rydiander had been homeless for two months and was struggling with alcohol addiction. She immediately signed up and the choir became her anchor in establishing a stable and healthy life.
“It has helped me to strive for more and accept myself,” Rydiander said. “It has restored my enthusiasm for life, given me hope for the future, and has given me self-confidence.”
Offering Additional Assistance During COVID-19 Crisis
Voices of Our City Choir recognized early on in the crisis that unsheltered and impoverished people were grappling with a severe shortage of food, clothing, and the ability to charge their phones. In the first week of March, they set up a seven-day-a-week phone charging station at their rehearsal space at Living Water Church of the Nazarene. They also partnered with the church and began delivering meals three days a week to over 100 households in need.
“We’re able to charge 30 to 50 devices a day,” Brady said. “And we’ve delivered over 30,000 meals since the crisis began because we have a lot of people who are at high risk of COVID-19 and are living their lives shut in.”
Even in the midst of the current crisis, healing through music remains a cornerstone of the program for all members. Steph Johnson, the executive director of the program, uses music as a creative outlet every day.
“We’ve seen choir members respond positively to being a part of our choir community, show incredible change over the course of time, and have a new appreciation for music,” Johnson said.
After a four-year journey, Rydiander moved into permanent housing three weeks ago. The choir has been her support system through it all.
“To me, the choir is my family … all different races, colors, and ages,” said Rydiander. “And I need them desperately.”