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Circle the City Choir gives people experiencing homeless a way to be heard

Homelessness is a chronic problem across the Valley. One of the many challenges in confronting it is providing health care for people who can't afford it. The Show's Sam Dingman recently spent some time with Circle the City, an organization whose motto is "meet people where they are."

Circle the City have medical centers where unhoused people can come get treatment, as well as respite centers where they can recover if they need major surgery. But they also offer a less traditional service: singing.

In a conference room at the Arizona Grand Resort, the Circle the City Choir is rehearsing a song called “This Is Me.”

[SINGING] I’m not a stranger to the dark …

Hide away, they say, ‘cuz we don’t want your broken parts.

I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars …

Run away, they say, no one will love you as you are …

Many of the choir members are standing up to sing, but some of them can’t. They balance their lyric sheets on the arms of their walkers, or cradle them in their laps and keep time by drumming their fingers against their wheelchairs. Between songs, I meet Deb Pina, who tends to close her eyes and sway when she sings.

"It’s really weird. I was a … not … strange kid?" Pina said. "But I wanted to be, like, a opera singer, when I was, like, a little girl. I just found I had big lungs!" [LAUGHING]

Pina has always known she has Yaqui tribal heritage. But one day her daughter encouraged her to take a DNA test. And when the results came back, Pina discovered she also had ancestors from the Chemehuevi people.

"The Chemehuevi are singers. That’s how they did all their healing, when they did their healing work, and their medicine work for the people, it had a lot to do with song," Pina said.

Healing, Pina says, is a big part of singing with the Circle the City choir.

Choir members shared about their backgrounds.

"The majority of the people are the forgotten. The old, the sick, the people that have mental issues," Pina said.

"What really put me in here recently with being homeless, was being in my car, and having neuropathy in the legs and stuff," said Joseph Piech. "And a disease of cellulitis really bad …"

"When I came out of the coma I was in for seven days, I couldn’t sing, and I couldn’t whistle. And it broke my heart," said Kelly Brinley.

"I got burns, which required amputations," said Theodore Auer. "And then about a year went by, almost a year and a half, and I fell into another injury, and because of that injury I missed a doctor’s appointment, and my sugars weren’t in check, and the infection just went rampant throughout my body. That’s when I lost my leg.

[SINGING] I am brave …

I am bruised …

I am who I’m meant to be … this is me.

Look out ‘cuz here I come…

And they shared how the choir has helped.

"After I started singing, it started re-mapping parts of my brain that was blocked," Brinley said. "And I found myself — I found my voice. As much as possible, part of my voice and tongue is still a little paralyzed."

"I love being together, hearing all the voices around me," Auer said. "It lifts your spirits, you know? It’s an awesome way to pass the time."

[SINGING] I’m not scared to be seen …

I make no apologies … this is me…

Whoa-oh-oh-ohhh …

Most of the members of the choir are patients at Circle the City — a nonprofit health-care organization that specializes in treating unhoused people. The choir is the brainchild of Dr. Yvonne Patterson, Circle the City’s outpatient medical director.

"I saw a choir — I think it was on "America’s Got Talent." And it was a choir of people who are unhoused from San Diego. And it was beautiful. I thought that I would really like to do that with our people," Patterson said.

Angela Jarvis is one of Circle the City’s nurse practitioners. She treats a lot of the patients in the choir. Part of that treatment, she says, is singing with them.

"It’s hard being homeless, and it’s even harder when you have health-care issues. And to have something else to focus on other than your situation really can kind of perk up a person and bring them out of depression, which there’s a lot of in the homeless community," Jarvis said.

One of the things that has been common across patient interviews is a sense of this time in their lives being sort of an interruption of their story.

"It is a big interruption in their life — from what they saw themselves doing," Jarvis said.

The choir is rehearsing at the Arizona Grand today, because it’s the annual gathering of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, and Patterson wants them to perform. The council calls this annual event a symposium, but as I walk into the convention hall at the Arizona Grand, the atmosphere feels more like a rally.

EMCEE: Homelessness is evil, and must be destroyed. Homelessness is evil, and must be destroyed! [APPLAUSE]

HYPE MAN: All right council, make some noise! [APPLAUSE] What do we want?

CROWD: Health care!

HYPE MAN: When do we want it?


HYPE MAN: Ok, put your hands together! Circle the City, make some noise! [APPLAUSE]

The choir files into the convention hall. The crowd, many of whom have been waving hand bells as they whoop and cheer for the other speakers, goes quiet. The choir’s conductor steps to the front of the group and nods to the keyboard player.

[SINGING]  I’m not a stranger to the dark …

Hide away, they say, ‘cuz we don’t want your broken parts.

As the group performs, I watch Pina leaning on her walker. She’s got her eyes wide open for the performance, and her voice cuts through the echo-filled room with a touch of extra clarity. Especially on the last line of the song.

[SINGING] Oh-whoa-oh, oh-whoa-oh, oh-whoa-oh, oh, oh,

This is me!


The choir sings four songs, and leaves the stage to raucous applause. The symposium attendees start ringing their bells and dancing to Pharrell as the Circle the City patients make their way to a row of buses. I catch up with Pina before she climbs onboard.

How did it feel to sing in front of everybody?

"Uh, nervous. I cracked once. But I did pretty good most of the time," Pina said.

How did she decide to lift up some of the harmonies? 

"Yeah, sometimes I have to do that. I dunno, it’s just my intuition. I just know the notes, and I feel it in my soul," Pina said.

Pina says the experience reminded her of another performance, about 20 years ago.

"I remember when I was dancing, 'cause I’m a sun dancer, which is our native religion. And I saw the music. I could see something coming out of the drum arbor, and it was colorful and it was more than energy, it was more … like a rainbow, kind of. But not exactly, because you could see a rainbow, and it wasn’t that. I don’t know if everyone could see it at the time, but I saw the music," Pina said.

Right now, Pina is healing from a surgery, that’s why she has to use the walker. She’s hoping to get back to sun dancing when she can.

"I will always love people - I’m a healer. I’m a person that gives" Pina said.

But in the meantime, she’ll keep singing with the choir.

"It’s nice to be heard!" Pina said.

Thanks to all the members of the Circle the City Choir who shared for this story. 

Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.