When the San Diego Music Awards approached musician and homelessness advocate Steph Johnson about having her Voices of Our City Choir open the show at House of Blues last month, she and the group were excited.
“This is a choir composed of homeless people — they were ecstatic to be there,” says Johnson.
“But it was a free gig. We were doing it for a great video — which is what we were promised. To open the show in front of our peers. And we were also promised dinner. I can’t really afford to do free gigs with this group — there’s over 35 people in the choir now and it takes a lot of work just to get everybody there. It’s one thing to ask musicians to perform for free; it’s another thing to ask homeless people who have no money and are hungry to do a gig for free. There was no way I was going to do that unless we were at least getting fed.”
But once the choir arrived in the afternoon for the soundcheck, according to Johnson, things soured. “We squeezed 35 people into the green room. At this point everyone is still in high spirits and excited. After an hour and a half I found the event producer [Kevin Hellman] and asked about the food. He said there was only going to be food for the volunteers that had been working all day. That’s not what they promised. So now I have to leave the event and find some food for the choir.”
“As I’m getting Chinese food and pizzas [for $135 out-of-pocket],” says Johnson, “I’m getting rude and disrespectful text messages claiming that the choir members are wandering around the club disturbing people. It turned out to be one lady who asked someone a question.
“It was the worst treatment we’ve had at a venue so far. These are beautiful people who deserve our respect. Not to be treated like criminals and riff-raff.”
To further complicate things, the sound turned out to be abysmal, nixing the goal of a “great video” as a reward. “Our friends up front couldn’t even hear us,” says Johnson.
“Every year you like to say that it was an honor to be nominated — but this year there was no honor in the way we were treated.”
But things are definitely looking up for the Voices of Our City.
“We’re doing events for special elected officials and different churches. All those gigs pay. Plus PBS is doing a documentary on the choir. We continue to try and find them shelter and show everyone that they are human beings.”