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Dallas Homeless Singers Have A Lofty Dream: A National Street Choir

Courtney Collins
KERA news
Members of the Dallas Street Choir rehearse at the Stewpot each week.

A choir for homeless men and women in Dallas has inspired street choirs across the country to form and collaborate. Its founder has formed a multi-city alliance and dreams of eventually creating a national street choir.

When the Dallas Street Choir gathers for rehearsal at the Stewpot, there's laughter, chatter and bustle, sure. Most importantly though, there's music.

That's why these singers are here. They love spending a cozy hour each week with like-minded folks. It's the music, though, that keeps them coming back.

"It just helps me a lot. Music helps me a lot," said Steven Joiner.

"It heals my soul, that's what it does," said Theresa Zacharias. "It heals my soul. In Spanish there is a saying that goes, like, 'When you can not cry, you sing.'"

Zacharias and Joiner are both members of the Dallas Street Choir, a group that performs locally several times a month. They've also played Austin, Washington D.C., and New York City.

Director and founder Jonathan Palant says seeing the choir on stage is electric-- especially lately.

"We have grown from nine members in the first month to averaging between 80 and 90 every single rehearsal," said Palant.

Getting organized

Now four years into leading the choir, Palant realized "winging it" wasn't the best idea. He wanted to pick the brains of other leaders bringing music to homeless people in cities like Baltimore and Indianapolis. He wanted to share ideas and answer questions from fellow directors.

There wasn't a group like that, so he started one: The National Alliance for Music in Vulnerable Communities now has 18 individual members in cities across the country.

"There's so many aspects to working with this community, not only the interpersonal skills, but it's also the kind of music we perform, the way we teach the music, it's the insurance that we carry, it's the rules of the room, and this organization is all about bringing us together so we can learn from each other," Palant said.

His mission with the Dallas Street Choir has always had two parts: Give the members something to feel good about, and help the audience see homelessness differently. That's why he hopes this alliance will someday lead to a national street choir.

"Even if it's just a one-time thing" Palant said. "To bring singers together from around the country and say, 'We're one, we have a voice, let's make people listen to us."

Finding peace in music

Credit Courtney Collins / KERA News
Ronn Johnson belts out his solo at Dallas Street Choir rehearsal.

Ronn Johnson's singing voice almost demands you listen. He lives at the Union Gospel Mission shelter--- he landed there after an arrest, drug use and depression led to homelessness. Then he found the Dallas Street Choir.

"It reminded me of my gifts, and what I have to give as well," he said.

The choir's a place where Johnson can lose himself in music and share his love of singing with others. It gives him purpose.

"The more you help others, I find, you kind of heal yourself in the process," he said. "And at the same time, you forget about you and you forget about your situation and then it kind of takes you to another place. I think music is inspired through love."

It's clear the Dallas Street Choir is inspired through love, too. That's something the audience can't help but pick up on a few measures into the first song.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.