“The Homeless Chorus Speaks” Gives Voice to Those We Rarely Hear

The film offers interviews with those in California’s homeless community


The Homeless Chorus Speaks, decidedly not called The Homeless Chorus Sings, is exactly as its title promises. We hear people speak — not social workers or charity organizers, but those in California’s homeless community, specifically members of the San Diego–based Voices of Our City Choir. Founded by two women, Steph Johnson and Nina Leilani Deering, the choir aims to heal through the power of music while raising awareness. The results can be felt in the film’s fourteen interviews.

Directed by Susan Polis Schutz, this PBS documentary is unflashy in style, and, running just under an hour, it plays less like a film than a classroom educational video. Consisting mostly of talking-head interviews, it offers a platform to people who rarely get one, let alone even a right to defend themselves — many recount unjust run-ins with the police, getting arrested and losing their property and pets. It’s difficult not to be moved when the subjects — men and women, young and old, of various backgrounds and ethnicities — talk about the abandonment, hate crime, drug addiction, child loss, and gang rape they’ve had to endure. What’s even more heartbreaking is that not everyone is speaking about their past. Many are still suffering in the present, still relapsing from drugs, still unable to find housing.

But the choir — and the new community it has given them — consistently lends itself as a beacon of hope in dire situations. “I have no one else,” one man says, and compares this group to family. Another man says that he was suicidal but that attending choir rehearsals has given him a sense of purpose. Even when most of the subjects have yet to find their happy ending, it’s still an uplifting film, and hearing them sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” you know that they’re still holding out for something better, too.

The Homeless Chorus Speaks
Directed by Susan Polis Schutz
Opens March 9, Cinema Village