Kate Cagle
Daily Press Staff Writer

Jazz musician Steph Johnson is looking back on a year filled with cathartic experiences.

Ever since she started hosting band rehearsals for musical members of San Diego’s homeless community in 2016, she’s watched how melody can make over a life. In fact, over the past year she’s helped 22 people get into housing through the group.

For those who remain on the streets, a few hours of music with their friends carries them through rough nights.

While other non-profits rally to get the homeless things: tents, hot meals and gently used clothing – Johnson is helping her band find their voices through the power of music.

“Really, people need community and friendship,” she said on a chilly December morning outside the Santa Monica Public Library where local homeless residents were attending a resource fair.

A dozen members of her choir, Voices of Our City, had awoken at 6 a.m. and made the journey north hoping to inspire others to lift their voices and find fellowship.

The group represented just a fraction of the fifty or so singers who usually show up to Johnson’s jam sessions.

They compose just a tiny fraction of a regional crisis.

“It’s unfortunate that this man-made disaster doesn’t get the same attention that something like a fire would,” Johnson said before taking the stage at the main library branch.

With a live band and warmed up voices, the group performed uplifting soul classics.

Johnson’s choir, which will be featured in a PBS Documentary next year, started in 20016 when she and some fellow musicians brought meals to the homeless. When she told them she sang and played guitar, she met people who wanted to sing too.

She decided to create a safe place for them to do just that.

A few months later, after getting some local press, they held their first concert.

The choir members, used to being stepped over, ignored and walked passed, were stunned when 350 people showed up to hear them sing. At first, the choir members were nervous looking out into the crowd.

Eventually nerves turned into pure joy.

“This whole beautiful exchange happened where they realized people were there for them,” Johnson said. “They stood taller. They were so grateful.”

More than eighteen months after the choir began, Johnson is hoping to inspire other musicians to in their own communities by lending some time, expertise and practice space.

Johnson believes music is the best way to bring rhythm and harmony to those experiencing the turmoil of living on the street.

“I think people want to do something and they want to help and they just don’t know how,” Johnson said.


Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press