DALLAS (CBS11) – They are the citizens of Dallas that many people work hardest to avoid.
But once a week, the invisible homeless gather to raise their voices as the Dallas Street Choir.
Next week, they will make history at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall, becoming the first homeless ensemble to grace the stage.
“It’s really hard to advocate for social justice if you’re not in that community, as well,” says founder, Jonathan Palant. “I was already doing some work with the Stewpot, so we decided to rebrand the Stewpot Choir into the Dallas Street Choir.”
Now, three years later, the music has morphed into a mission.
“What we do, is we give a platform to the otherwise unseen, most marginalized members of our community,” says Palant, who holds a doctorate in choral conducting. “They may have addiction and mental illness; but, they are still people and we need to see each other, for who we are, not just our afflictions.”
Choir member Carolyn Sue Smith struggles with mental illness and says it kept her on the street off and on, for some 17 years.
“Once you’re in the streets, they suck you in,” says Smith, “not being able to take your shower, go to apply for a job and they look at you, not wearing the proper clothes, not very clean… you never get called back.”
Smith says she attended her first choir rehearsal because she needed a bus pass. Those who show up, and don’t act up, are rewarded after rehearsal with a meal and a bus pass.
But, Smith stayed for the comfort and the encouragement. Although she’s now in permanent housing, she still won’t miss a rehearsal. “It helps me with my stresses, just to help me get over things that really bother me.”
She calls her life now, “wonderful.” And it’s about to get better. This weekend, she will be among those selected to make the trip to New York… the choir will also perform in Washington, D.C.
“I’m thrilled! Very, very thrilled!” exclaims Smith with a huge smile and slapping her palms to her face as though still in disbelief. “It’s gonna be real cool,” she adds, while admitting that she’s never been on an airplane. “I always loved the song, though”– and starts to hum a tune, “I’m leaving on the jet…”
Michael Brown will also take his first flight as a member of the touring choir. He, too, says the bus pass drew him to the rehearsal room. He needed to get to class.
“I am a senior at UNT Dallas,” says Brown, who in spite of being homeless, plans to graduate and one day got to law school. “To overcome this challenge is to say what is the next big step I can take. It’s going to be wonderful.”
While in New York, several hundred residents of family homeless shelters will be bused in to enjoy the concert next Wednesday as well.
“It’s mind blowing,” says Brown. “We’re homeless. Meaning, we don’t have a roof. but, we do have a voice. We can think. We can participate.”
And for Palant, who will also direct the CREDO community choir on the tour, the trip is an opportunity for the overlooked to have their experiences acknowledged.
“They have the same heart, the same drive,” says Palant. “They have something to say.”