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  • Writer's pictureHeather Ann

Blog Post: Voices of Our City: Empowering San Diego’s Homeless Community

Voices of Our City amplifies the voices of people impacted by homelessness through music and the arts

This blog is part of a series of posts highlighting the 10 inaugural grantees of the Jay Kahn Endowment Fund.

Lost, But Now Found

Over the last several months, Voices of Our City choir member, JoJo, has made the trip to choir rehearsal every Monday morning. Having lived on the streets for some time, she credits the choir as one of the first steps to finding herself once again.

“I was so lost, (but) they saved my life. And I mean that literally,” she said. “What they’ve done for us as a community is unbelievable.”

Voices of Our City choir was founded in 2016 by Executive Director Steph Johnson. Johnson noticed the suffering of those in the unhoused community and recognized how many of them were artists with no creative outlet. After meeting and collaborating with Pastor Chris Nafis with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Johnson and Voices of Our City co-founder, the late Nina Deering, found inspiration to create a choir. The choir found its home at St. Paul’s.

“It started really by just connecting people as creatives, but what was missing was a connection to resources,” Johnson said.

“Voices of Our City amplifies the voices of people impacted by homelessness through music and the arts. Our Choir Members develop renewed hope, personal empowerment, and the life skills to achieve their goals.”

Rehearsals and songwriting workshops are held weekly to encourage creativity and bridge the gap between the unhoused community and available resources. The grassroots music movement quickly grew into a full-fledged nonprofit organization with more than 200 choir members and has proved to be instrumental for those living in the homeless community. Together, the organization has connected roughly 60 people to housing so far.

“We’ve now figured out this great way to have this open community choir rehearsal, connect them with all these other different service providers and refer them to life-saving services,” Johnson said.

Changing Perceptions

“There’s this perception of someone who is living on the sidewalk is dangerous and unpredictable,” said Lindsey Seegers, Deputy Executive Director at Voices of Our City choir. “The people I meet are poets and creatives and sensitive souls. It’s the best of humanity and what we can all be when we’re around the things we have in common other than our differences.”

The experience of homelessness is known to be isolating and filled with fear and trauma. Both Johnson and Seegers agree the choir has helped its members begin to trust and heal.

“As much as this work and the mission of Voices of Our City choir moves people in their own lives, it’s also doing this community shift,” Seegers said.

One choir member, Stacey, now works at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. He said making music with the community also inspired him to do more for himself.

“Once you’re in that room and things are going, you vibe from each other,” he said. “I’ve been so inspired by all the beauty within this choir. I’ve also started my own business.”

The nationally recognized choir also rose to stardom and made headlines as a semi-finalist on America’s Got Talent.

San Diego Foundation awarded Voices of Our City with an unrestricted $150,000 grant over the next three years as an inaugural grantee of the Jay Kahn Endowment Fund. SDF recognized the power of Voices of Our City and its ability to connect San Diego’s unsheltered neighbors with hope and housing through the healing power of music, individualized care and advocacy.

About the Jay Kahn Endowment Fund

In February 2023, Jay Kahn, a local entrepreneur and music lover, donated an unrestricted $100 million cash gift to San Diego Foundation – the largest-ever gift of its kind to a local nonprofit. Thanks to his generosity, SDF created the Jay Kahn Endowment Fund, which will perpetually benefit San Diego.

The first grants from Kahn’s gift, which is the third-largest gift of its kind to a U.S. community foundation, include $150,000 unrestricted grants to 10 San Diego-based music education nonprofits to advance their work in the community. The grants intend to grow music appreciation in San Diego in memory of Kahn.

One of the inaugural Jay Kahn Endowment Fund grantees is Voices of Our City. Its mission is to transform the perception and experience of homelessness through the healing power of the arts.

Jay Kahn was born on February 23, 1932, in Benton Harbor, Michigan, to a recently immigrated German father and his second-generation wife. Jay left Benton Harbor just out of high school after receiving a full scholarship to study clarinet at the University of Texas, Denton. Though he didn’t finish the program, classical music, specifically chamber music for winds, remained a lifelong passion of Jay’s. He played in several ensembles around San Diego, including orchestras at UC San Diego and the University of San Diego.

Learn how you can give with San Diego Foundation.

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