Giving a voice

Monday, 12 December 2016

Giving a voice

The Choir with No Name puts on weekly singing groups and meals for the UK’s homeless and socially excluded. Emilee Tombs went along to a rehearsal to find out how the Masonic Charitable Foundation is helping

It’s a muggy Monday evening in London, and a group has started to gather on the steps of the Only Connect Theatre in Kings Cross. Some are old, some young, some large, some small, but all are chatting animatedly, waiting for the heavy metal doors to open. This is the weekly gathering of the Choir with No Name (CWNN), a charity set up in 2008 to offer weekly singing classes and dinner to the homeless and vulnerably housed. They’re anxious to get inside and start singing.

‘I first came to the choir because I needed something positive to concentrate on,’ says Stef, a 41-year-old ex drug addict who spent a lot of his young adult life homeless or in and out of institutions. ‘When I was 19, I was living on the streets of Piccadilly Circus and I became addicted to drugs. To fund my addiction, I shoplifted and worked as a prostitute. It was only when I came to choir and had something to get well for that I was able to successfully go to rehab and get myself clean.’

Now a freelance florist, Stef is just one of the success stories present at the singing session, with many other choir members eager to discuss not only their hardships but also their achievements, which they directly attribute to the weekly CWNN gatherings. At 6pm on the dot the doors swing open and the group filters downstairs to grab cups of tea and biscuits, passed out by sociable volunteers.

On a level

There’s no audition to join CWNN, no fees, and no obligation to attend every week. The initiative has proven popular and there are now four choirs in the UK: two in London, one in Birmingham and one in Liverpool. ‘Everyone here has different experiences,’ says Sascha, a flame-red-haired woman who is attending choir for the first time tonight. ‘There’s fellowship and sharing and community here that I’d been missing in my life. It’s unimaginably important to have groups like this.’

After spending 25 years working as a teacher in international schools in Japan, Uzbekistan, Nigeria, Kenya and Romania, Sascha returned to the UK to find herself homeless, and is currently living on friends’ couches while she tries to establish a life for herself in London again.

Vince, a long-standing member and Sascha’s friend, interrupts. ‘With some groups you don’t fit in,’ he says, ‘but everybody fits in here.’ Sascha agrees: ‘Exactly. Choir is kind of a leveller.’

‘There’s fellowship and sharing and community here that I’d been missing in my life. It’s unimaginably important.’ Sascha

Reducing isolation

For the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF), CWNN is more than just a singing group. ‘The choir is about building people’s confidence and their social skills, as well as teaching them to be tolerant of others,’ says Caroline McHale, Senior Grants Officer at the MCF. ‘The beneficiaries are people who have been excluded from society in some way, so teamwork like this, which aims to reduce their isolation, is extremely important. The choir is the conduit, but for the members it’s so much more than that.’

After reviewing the choir’s application, the MCF donated £5,000 to help towards its running costs. ‘The fact that it runs workshops in hostels and day centres as well as the weekly choir, and was able to help 500 vulnerable adults last year, was important for us,’ says McHale.

It’s show time and the choir makes its way upstairs to a towering white room with wooden floors. Wrought-iron balustrades above are festooned with lights and there’s a stage at one end and a piano at the other. After strict instructions to not talk over each other from choir master Liz, the group gets into the warm-up exercises, sticking out tongues and pulling faces at each other, which elicits a belly-shaking laugh from the back of the room. ‘I’ve missed that laugh, Kevin,’ Liz calls to the black cap of a doubled-over figure in the third row. Kevin pulls himself together enough to join in again, grinning widely.

Breaking out

After learning a verse and chorus from Our House by Madness and David Bowie’s Life on Mars, we head back downstairs for vegetable fajitas in the break-out room. One of the choir ambassadors David notes that for some this might be the only meal they’ll get all week.

In 1993 a car accident left David with a severe brain injury, and singing in the choir became an integral part of his recovery. Like a number of the members he’s not currently homeless, but has experienced it to a degree in his life, and CWNN has provided him with help and support to find accommodation. ‘There was a whole lot of things I did to help me to be okay in mind and body again after the accident. When everything else ended or didn’t go well the choir was my constant.’

Having joined in 2010, David is one of the longest-standing members, and his role as ambassador sees him promoting the choir and helping to organise events, such as the upcoming Christmas concert at Shoreditch Town Hall. ‘Choir has done so much for me, and for everyone here,’ he says, looking to Stef, who is also an ambassador, for assurance.

Stef backs him up wholeheartedly. ‘Whether it’s the social interaction you enjoy or just popping in for a decent meal, you’ll instantly feel really comfortable,’ he says. ‘I’ve never felt so supported.’

FIND OUT MORE To read about the Choir with No Name, go to www.choirwithnoname.org 

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