After more than ten years of leading the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, Kathleen McGuire has hit the streets. The internationally renowned lesbian conductor and dot429 member has founded Singers of the Street, a choral group for the homeless.
She was inspired by fellow Aussie Jonathon Welch, who’d formed a similar group in Melbourne, which was profiled in a wildly popular six-part TV documentary. Welch was trying to convince McGuire to form a homeless choir in San Francisco when Lea Brown of the Metropolitan Community Church asked her to do it as well.
“When I heard about Prop. L, which would make it illegal to sit or lie on city streets after 11 p.m., I thought we have to start this now,” says McGuire. So in protest, Singers of the Street (S.O.S.) was born. Although Prop. L passed, the choir has already had an incredibly positive impact on its members.
“It provides self-esteem, community, and socialization which is missing from most homeless services that provide food and shelter. Group members have told me that our rehearsals are the only time in the week when someone speaks to them and is happy to see them.” Members are also provided with meals at each rehearsal and performance.
When asked how she recruits homeless singers in San Francisco, McGuire says, “You walk outside. We did print and post flyers and it has spread by word of mouth.” The group recently partnered with the Community Justice Center of the California Supreme Court, which now refers potential candidates to S.O.S.
Potential members are not screened for their singing ability, but those who are drawn to the group have an interest in singing. “One young man was severely depressed and he hadn’t worked in years,” says McGuire. “He’d been a singing major in college and the chorus has helped his self-esteem so much that he’s gone out and found part-time work – which he schedules around rehearsals.”
McGuire admits that continuity is a challenge, with a core group rehearsing each week, but others only coming in intermittently. Gregory Sandritter, a marriage and family therapist, works with the group to provide support and referrals for S.O.S. members with specific issues and needs. “It’s amazing how well it seems to work out,” says McGuire.
Although S.O.S. may seem like a far cry from the tuxedoed SF Gay Men’s Chorus, McGuire sees it as an extension of her musical activism. “This is about changing people’s lives, and changing other people’s perceptions of the homeless,” she says.
“I’ve seen huge changes in the marriage equality fight over the past ten years, and that happens by changing one person at a time. Once you’ve heard these people sing, it’s impossible not to see that person in the street as a human being. And after fifteen years of gay activism, it feels nice to be casting my net further.”
McGuire is currently seeking private and corporate funding to continue this work. “It’s worked elsewhere so we know that the model works,” she says. “If it can happen anywhere in the United States, it can happen in San Francisco.”
For performance schedules and opportunities to get involved with Singers of the Street go here