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How the Dallas Street Choir grants homeless residents a voice
Judy Woodruff: Some 2,000 singers have passed through the Dallas Street Choir in the last five years. The idea is to boost spirits while people try to get back on their feet, and to raise public awareness about what it means to be homeless.
Jeffrey Brown went to Dallas recently to see the nation's largest street choir at work.
The report is part of our occasional series on homelessness, Without a Home, and our ongoing coverage of arts and culture, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: A lifting of voices at Wednesday morning rehearsal, where the words from the song "You Will Be Found" hold real meaning.
This is the Dallas Street Choir, whose members carry their worldly belongings with them, including sleeping bags used the previous night in shelters and outdoors.
Jonathan Palant is the group's founder and conductor.
Jonathan Palant: It's wonderful that we have such a large choir here in Dallas, because so many people are taking from this choir. They are receiving the benefits of music, of family, of togetherness.
It's also sad that we have so many people that require such a service. I would love for this just to be the Dallas Choir, but it's not. It has to be the Street Choir.
Jeffrey Brown: The Stewpot in downtown Dallas is a day shelter that offers food, clothing, health and other services, even an art studio.
And once a week, those who want to sing line up outside for a fist-bump welcome and an hour's worth of music and uplift, along with a snack and a $2 bill for their efforts.
Palant, a professor at the University of Texas, Dallas, started the Street Choir five years ago, when Credo, one of several choruses he leads, largely white, middle-class, employed or retired, was given a piece of music to sing that told of the hardships of living on the street. Something felt wrong.
Jonathan Palant: It didn't make sense, unless we were to incorporate the community, unless we were to reach out, unless we were to educate.
Jeffrey Brown: Why was it obvious, though, that music would be the way to reach these people?
Jonathan Palant: I am simply using what it is I do to bring people together.
I think the arts in general are a powerful tool to tear down walls and barriers and perceptions and stigmas and stereotypes, to show that we're really more the same than not.
Jeffrey Brown: The Dallas Street Choir has been a success. It now presents some 15 concerts a year at schools, churches, and large corporate gatherings, often performing alongside other choruses.
And in 2017, having gotten the attention and support of important opera figures, like singer Frederica von Stade, the group even sang at Carnegie Hall. But that doesn't change the day-to-day circumstances for these people, who came to homelessness through a litany of causes, including addiction, mental illness, job loss and evictions, and, in some cases, convictions and incarceration.
During our visit, 55-year-old Darrell Payne, who'd served time in prison and is now in a shelter, took one of the leads on the Paul Simon song "Gone At Last."
Darrell Payne: My prayers goes out to those people out there on the streets, because it hurt me deep down inside.
Jeffrey Brown: What does coming to the Street Choir do for you?
Darrell Payne: It makes me grow stronger, makes my voice stronger.
Jeffrey Brown: The mantra of the Dallas Street Choir? Homeless, not voiceless.
Misty Zacharias is another Wednesday regular. She's an artist, as well as a singer.
Misty Zacharias: I think it was an empty spot inside of me, and I didn't even know about it until I heard them singing. I get to meet beautiful people, you know?
Jeffrey Brown: To meet beautiful people?
Misty Zacharias: Yes, they are beautiful. No matter what they are going through, you know, some of them, they have been really hurting.
But regardless of anything, if you ask them, they're going to give you a big smile back and say, good morning.
Jeffrey Brown: The problem here in Dallas, though, as in other U.S. cities, is growing worse, seen at the public library and elsewhere.
Some members of the Street Choir spend their nights at The Bridge homeless recovery center, a large facility that takes in some 800 people a day and offers 24/7 support, including physical and mental health care.
Chief development officer Nick Colletti is proud of the work done here. It's received national attention. But he also notes the paradox of rising homelessness, 9 percent jumps each of the past two years, in a city with a booming economy.
Nick Colletti: We do have a shortage of affordable housing solutions for folks here in Dallas.
We all understand that, when it comes to homelessness, every one of us is one single catastrophic moment away from being homeless, whether it's a medical catastrophe, whether you lose your job, you're evicted, whatever could happen, right?
Jeffrey Brown: Two choir members we met experienced that kind of sudden shift; 64-year-old Bjorn Herrmann grew up in Sweden and told us he'd had a restaurant equipment business here, before losing it, and eventually his home, several years ago.
His friend, 54-year-old Jesse Seay, grew up in Dallas, and says he once made a good living and had a three-bedroom house, before DUI violations and three years in prison led where he is today, a life filled with a new kind of stress.
Jesse Seay: Having to think about where I'd rather be, opposed to where I am. It can get really stressful out here, and it's sometimes dangerous.
Bjorn Herrmann: The choir has been like a big thing for all of us right now. It's kind of like a getaway to do something that we love to do. It just gives me like a spiritual peace, the singing.
Jesse Seay: Being homeless is not a disability.
Jeffrey Brown: On this day, in fact, Jesse Seay told the group he'd just left the streets and was living with family again.
Jesse Seay: I hopefully will not become homeless again. I'm really going to try hard not to. I'm looking for a brighter future.
Jeffrey Brown: You going to keep singing here?
Jesse Seay: Yes, absolutely.
Bjorn Herrmann: Oh, no, absolutely.
Jesse Seay: Absolutely.
Bjorn Herrmann: Absolutely. We wouldn't let Jonathan down for anything.
Jesse Seay: No. No.
Jeffrey Brown: Jonathan Palant is used to that loyalty from his street singers. He's also used to a question raised as we talked in a storage room filled with basic supplies for the homeless.
Resources being put into music, to a choir, why is that the place to put resources?
Jonathan Palant: What we offer through music is personal integrity. You may not have four walls, but our singers will tell you, four walls, a home doesn't make.
Jeffrey Brown: And this message is spreading. Palant heads a network called the National Alliance for Music in Vulnerable Communities, with music programs now in 12 cities.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Dallas.
Judy Woodruff: Personal integrity and a whole lot more. What a wonderful story. Thank you.