Singing for the streets

New Zealand’s first street choir sings to raise money and awareness. The cause is homelessness, and the homeless are among them. MARK JENNINGS of Newsroom reports.

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If you walk past the Pitt Street Methodist church in Auckland on a Tuesday night you will notice two things the beautiful stained glass windows backlit by the church’s lights, and the harmonious sounds coming from the building.
Tuesday night is practice night for the church’s accomplished choir.
But there is more than one choir practising in the 150-year-old parish.
Down in the church’s austere basement, another group of singers is rehearsing an eclectic mix of music ranging from waiata, to reggae, to pop songs.
They are New Zealand’s first street choir.
They sing to raise money and awareness. The cause is homelessness and the homeless are among them.
Pitt Street Methodist is close to Karangahape Road, where many of the city’s rough sleepers and marginalised gather.
Men like Richard, who has been homeless off and on for years, say the choir is “like a rugby team without a ball.”
“We are not judged, we can sing and be part of something.”
The number of people under “housing stress” in Auckland is estimated to be about 40,000, and the numbers living on the street have increased in the last few years.
Lifewise, which helps homeless people, puts the number of people now sleeping rough on the streets at more than four hundred.
Management consultant Rohan McMahon noticed the rise in ‘rough sleepers” in the CBD and started the choir.
“I was looking for something to do musically at the time and thought that starting a street choir would be a challenge for me and maybe help some of the homeless at the same time” said McMahon.
Under his guidance, the choir now has 25 regulars.
“It’s brought together a unique bunch of people who enjoy each other’s company and learning songs from different musical traditions. For example, I’m an Australian, so learning waiata has been great. I really like the feeling the we have created something new that is making a real contribution to the community.”
McMahon is not naivve in thinking that opportunity to sing is the choir’s only attraction.
A transwoman who wanted to be identified only as “six” says she originally came for the free pizza served up at practice.
“Hot food and a cup of tea drew me in, but I have met some fantastic friends and had such positive experiences here. I was living on the street and it was something to look forward to. Afterwards I would wander off and camp outside the chemist shop.”
“The street makes you tough as you have to defend your territory, but coming to sing in the choir is an oasis of sanity. Some will leave here tonight with no idea where they are going others will go home to their husbands and wives.”
While warmth and food are obvious attractions, singing provides a more intangible benefit.
Ellie, an educated woman who through her circumstances found herself living
on the street for three weeks, says the music gave her vitality and a sense of purpose.
“It counteracts the loneliness and social isolation, and gives you energy.”
According to McMahon, “singing in the choir is very good for your health, I mean that seriously something is released, maybe endorphins, but clearly people feel better after performing a few songs.”
McMahon says the choir has busked on the streets and provided free entertainment at community events, like a recent Matariki function at the Auckland central library.
“We are getting better and better all the time, and taking on more challenging material”
And there was a more serious edge to last Tuesday’s practice session which Mahon says can be “rather loose affairs.”
To celebrate two years since it started, the Auckland Street Choir will stage its first public concert today. The event will be a fundraiser for Lifewise and the Auckland City Mission.
“I think we are ready, I’m hope everybody who turns up will have a great time.” Says McMahon.

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