'I am someone, I am not invisible': Exploring choirs and community singing groups for people who have experienced homelessness
There has been a significant growth in the number of new choirs and community singing opportunities in the last fifteen years (Reagon et al., 2016), to support different social groups and specific health populations. Personal testimonies about the positive impact of participating abound, with people actively seeking opportunities to participate in choirs for social as well as musical reasons. This interest has been matched by a growth of research, exploring the relationship between group singing and wellbeing. Singing groups have been set up for people who have experienced homelessness, however, with limited research to date, there is a need for further exploration around how this population experience being in a group. This research will contribute to our understanding of wellbeing and community singing. This is a qualitative phenomenological study of singing groups set up in the UK and Rio de Janeiro for people who have experienced homelessness. It seeks to understand how singers experience participation and explores the accounts of people who run and support the groups and those who set them up. Semistructured interviews were conducted with singers and staff, while rehearsals and performances were observed. Thematic analysis revealed that the singing groups are physical, symbolic and emotional places marked out as separate from the wider experience of homelessness. Boundaries are held by explicit and implicit rules and through the support and care received by the group leader and other staff, the session becomes a sanctuary-like place. Within this safe space new social interactions are possible, and relationships are formed with other singers, staff and audiences. While there are benefits from these exchanges, the relationship within the groups can be challenging. Singers reported further positive impacts relating to wellbeing: emotional, mental and cognitive benefits and a deeper connection to the sense of self. Public performances can be a critical part of being a group member, bringing experiences of visibility and validation and challenging society’s perception of homelessness. This research highlights the value of singing groups for people who are homeless, improving their life satisfaction, by engaging in an activity that is worthwhile and has meaning. Participating enables the construction of a new musical persona which challenges both the stigma associated with a homeless identity and public perceptions of the condition. Homelessness is a national emergency (Shelter, 2019c) and one of the biggest social issues in the UK. While these singing groups cannot ‘fix’ homelessness or the housing crisis, they offer more than a pleasant distraction; challenging some of the experiences associated with the condition and contributing to improving the quality of life of singers.