It was a night of standing ovations at a special event that filled all 300 seats of the auditorium at San Diego's Central Library downtown, Feb. 21, 2018. It was the premiere of "The Homeless Chorus Speaks," the latest of local filmmaker Susan Polis Schutz's "documentaries that make a difference," and the audience was almost as interesting as the film.
They were a voluble mix of Schutz fans, homeless advocates, patrons of the arts and politicians, and several rows included some of the homeless people who starred in the movie and were seeing it for the first time. It was probably the first time that so many well-domiciled folks were getting to sit so close to people whose only home was a sleeping bag in the street. It was a lesson from the film: Homeless people are just like the rest of us. They are our neighbors, and they can sing.
Schutz, a longtime La Jollan, has been making docs for over a decade, always about subjects in which she is passionately interested, and often personally involved. All her films are then aired on local and national PBS-TV.
In this one, Schutz features a group of homeless people who are part of "Voices of Our City," a downtown choir that meets weekly, not far from the Central Library. She gives them a chance to share their individual stories — as businessmen, nurses, a poet, a teacher, a musician — none of them born into homelessness.
Failed businesses and crippling illnesses often started the downward slide, making the cost of housing untenable. Anxiety, depression, abuse — and not as often as you might think, addiction — led each of them into the streets, where life is dangerous and what little they have left can be suddenly snatched away, by other street people or the police. They are amazingly forthright and articulate about their situations. If they didn't have PTSD to begin with, they get it from living on the streets.
Enter Steph Johnson, a vivacious, warm-hearted singer/guitarist who started out bringing small gifts of food to her "unsheltered neighbors" and ended up — with the help of musical director Nina Deering — creating a singing family, invigorated by kindness and hope.
Johnson says she herself grew up poor, a step away from being homeless. For the past several years, the Choir has been her mission, and it's been life-changing for some of those in it. Their biggest achievement: they've managed to find housing for 26 Choir members.
The evening's first standing ovation was for producer/director Schutz, whose work brought the audience in. Tom Carlo, General Manager of KPBS, introduced her, praising her as a maker of films that are truly healing.
Schutz acknowledged the Central Library as "a sanctuary and learning center for all people," and talked about the background of the film. She had just finished her previous film, "It's 'Just' Anxiety," and was planning to take a year off when she happened to see a clip of the Choir on KPBS. She went to a rehearsal, fell in love with them all, and went right to work. "I wanted to know their stories," she said. "I wanted to know: what can we do to help?"
After she spoke, there were questions from the audience: What can we do? Johnson and Deering were called up onstage — another standing ovation. "Come to our Friday rehearsals," Johnson said. "And stop criminalizing people for not having a place to live. Call the Mayor's office! Elect the right people!"
There were a number of elected officials and candidates in the audience; they were asked to stand up. Among them: District 1 City Council member Barbara Bry, former District Attorney of San Diego County Bonnie Dumanis, and 29-year old Congressional candidate Sara Jacobs. Then there was the grand finale — an uplifting performance by the Choir — and the biggest ovation of all.
• WHEN TO WATCH: "The Homeless Chorus Speaks" will air at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 22, 2018 on KPBS-TV. To make a donation or learn more about the Voices of Our City choir, visit voicesofourcity.org