“You may have heard of choirs with no name, they are just choirs, but how often have you heard of The Choir With No Name?” asks Xavier, a choir member.

The Choir With No Name is a pioneering choir for people who have been affected by homelessness, started by Marie Benton. She was working at St Mungo’s and singing in a gospel choir in 2008, when she saw a choir in Australia called The Choir of Hard Knocks and thought about combining gospel singing with helping people who are without a home. There are now four choirs across the UK, in London, Birmingham, Brighton and Liverpool. We caught up with Sam Chaplin, the London choirmaster, and a few choir members and volunteers ahead of their gig on the 13 March, to see what the choir has done for those who have experienced or are experiencing living on the streets.

The Choir With No Name
© Tim Hodges

“I got a taste for community music making... I worked with some fantastic people and saw how they could get people singing. I thought, this is amazing”, says Sam. He has been working with the choir for over six years and originally heard about it from friends working in community music. He ran a choir with his wife in Hammersmith before becoming choirmaster of The Choir With No Name. When he started working with them, he dove straight into the deep end, exactly as he sought to do. “Essentially, I seek out situations where I feel a bit scared and vulnerable, with scared and vulnerable people, and we work it out together.” Sam has worked in choirs for mothers who have had their children taken into care and even in prison choirs, using his jazz band’s gigs (Jazz Bomb) to fund community work. “The best thing for me,” Sam tells me, “is not the venues, it is not the famous people. The best thing is seeing people find their sense of community and home and finding something that lifts them up out of themselves, gives them confidence… it fills them up.”

The choir is not only for people who have experienced homelessness but also for people who find themselves on the margins of society, such as those with mental health issues, addictions or in recovery. Sam explains that people who have given up addictions find it difficult to stay clean or keep dry because they have an emptiness they used to fill with substance misuse. He calls this emptiness a “fun vacuum”. But when they join the choir, “it becomes their fun place, it’s where they get their thrills, their rush. They don’t need to drink or do drugs anymore.”

The choir has supported members through rehabilitation, finding homes, through mourning, through illnesses and much more. Choir member Lou, who was an alcoholic for five years before she went into rehabilitation and joined the choir, shares her story. “I felt like the choir was my family straight away,” she says. “It keeps me alive. When I get depressed I won’t get out of bed for the world, but I will come to choir. It gives me that little flicker of light to get up and come.”

When it comes to choosing songs, Sam tries to choose ones with uplifting lyrics and always asks for suggestions from choir members. The lyrics from This is Me, The Greatest Showman, “another round of bullets hits my skin, well fire away because today I won’t let this shame set in” chime with Lou, who sings the solo. Despite her troubled past, her face lights up as she describes coming to rehearsal, never having sung before and singing her first solo in front of thousands of people. The recorded single, This is Me, is due to be released later this year alongside a campaign to highlight the individual stories of choir members and destigmatise homelessness.

Fifty to sixty people turn up for rehearsal each week, with around hundred on the books, all from different walks of life. Before rehearsal there’s tea, coffee and biscuits and following it a delicious hot dinner cooked by volunteers. The members sing in three-part harmony, unison, even two-part contrapuntal – some with no musical experience at all. To teach people who have never sung before, Sam has some tricks up his sleeve: “We spend a lot of time on warm up exercises that seem like silliness, but I’m helping people feel the ups and downs in the music. I take the words away and put silly noises to them, like 'na na na' and suddenly they’re not thinking about the notes. They let go of something and they’re bang in tune.”

The Choir With No Name, featuring Xavier and David
© Tim Hodges

Later, when I speak to choir member David, he excitedly shuffles his lyric sheets around, papers absolutely covered in detailed notes. “We try and put on a good show!” he exclaims, showing his enthusiasm for singing. It’s incredible how during rehearsal there is complete focus and discipline. Choir member Xavier says he feels protected now that he is with the choir, and Tawa, who is no longer homeless, remains with the choir to encourage people who are going through it. She says: “We are each other’s keeper as it were. Black or white, makes no difference. As far as I’m concerned, you’re a human first and a brother second.” For her, being in the choir means that she can serve a purpose and raise awareness about homelessness. “Anyone can be homeless,” she continues, “we are only a pay-check away…”

It seems then that singing has some unexplored benefits and it’s clear that the choir members gain confidence and a sense of achievement when they join. Monica, one of the musical volunteers has experienced both sides of the singing coin. She came from an opera background and started working with the choir when she moved to London – but only after a year of being on the waiting list. “Singing is not just pretty noise” she explains. “When I was singing, it was career-focussed and I loved it, but now I’ve come here and I’ve seen the holistic approach: singing helps with breathing and relaxes the body. There’s also the camaraderie, which helps with morale.”

The sense of community amongst the choir members is inspiring to watch: as their harmonies intertwine it sends shivers down your spine. However, it would be wrong to overlook the difficult aspects about the choir. Sam laments how some choir members suddenly drop out, just as they were getting somewhere both musically and therapeutically. Sometimes it’s a cycle, though, and they come back. Choir member David explains that he has a “few bruises from yesteryear” but that the benefits outweigh them all. In bringing people together there is always going to be conflict, and indeed at the end of rehearsal I did witness some raised voices, but choir manager Ryan quickly stepped in to stop it in its tracks in a matter of moments.

The choir’s aim of tackling homelessness is not diminished by this, though. We speak in the crypt of Bloomsbury Baptist Church, where the choir members eat what is probably their only meal of the week shared with other people. But it’s not just about providing food and sustenance. “It’s about the journey, transformation, joy, community which is built through doing something like this which addresses the roots of homelessness rather than just giving people a key to a house,” Sam explains passionately. “This choir really helps to hack away at those underlying problems.” Tawa echoes this sentiment speaking from her own experience: “They can’t just find you a home and then, bye bye. You have to go back and do a return visit to see how the person is getting on. Some people have been on the street for many years before they find a place to live and you have to continue to encourage them after that, because if you just leave them, they’ll be back on the streets again.”

There are plenty of options for people to get involved with The Choir with No Name. The choir welcomes volunteers, though they are quite popular: like Monica, you may have to wait for a year before being able to start. But there are also donations, which go straight to paying the small number of staff the charity has and for the meals the choir share each week. Alternatively, going to their gigs, like the one at St James, Piccadilly on the 13 March with the Yale Glee Club or buying the This is Me single later this year is also a fantastic way to support them.

CWNN London is run in partnership with Look Ahead Care & Support.

Click here for more information about the choir on their website.