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'The Homeless Chorus Speaks' documents voices arising from the streets

'The Homeless Chorus Speaks' documents voices arising from the streets
Diane, center, performs with a homeless choir in the documentary "The Homeless Chorus Speaks." (PBS Films)

As its title suggests, "The Homeless Chorus Speaks" gives voice to a group of people who sing together. Their repertoire includes "Amazing Grace," James Taylor and Sister Sledge, and they're members of the Voices of Our City Choir, an outreach project begun in 2016 by San Diego musicians Steph Johnson and Nina Leilani, turning their compassion into heroic action.

For her brief but potent documentary (airing on PBS this spring), director Susan Polis Schutz spent time with 14 choir regulars. They're poets, veterans, former businesspeople, survivors of hate crimes and sexual assault. For a range of reasons as varied as any random sampling of life stories, they're struggling to survive on the streets.

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One man is working on a graduate degree while sleeping on a bench. One woman lost her vision to glaucoma and can't afford an apartment on her monthly disability pay of $900. Some struggle with addiction or other mental health issues, but what the film makes affectingly clear is that there's no one-size-fits-all narrative to explain a crisis that's worsening, according to government figures, with more than half a million Americans shelterless.

How do you reverse the downward spiral when you're vulnerable and frequently subject to arrest? Together, the choir members find a new sense of family. Schutz's no-frills chronicle captures the joyful embrace of their voices intertwining. Her film is a lesson in empathy, demonstrating how ground-shifting the simple act of listening can be.

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‘The Homeless Chorus Speaks’

Not rated

Running time: 57 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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