The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Homeless singers achieve their dream by singing at White House, Lincoln Memorial

Before heading to sing at The White House, the Atlanta Homeward Choir stopped by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to serenade visitors. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)
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Shawn Neal once sang “We Shall Overcome” at a civil rights march in the early 1960s where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke. Tyran Austin was a music major at Cheyney University near Philadelphia. Marvin Coine had sung in his high school choir.

Now they sing together.

Neal, Austin and Coine are homeless, living on the streets of Atlanta. The circumstances that got them there are different — and yet strikingly similar: a misstep, a lost job, a wrong path.

Every night they find shelter in a church basement that welcomes them in from the cold. And it’s there where the church musical director invited them to form a choir.

And so it came to pass that in the quiet chilly morning on Monday, the three men stood with 13 others on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, gathered around the slab of etched marble marked as the spot where King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and started to sing.

Dressed in thick bubble jackets and black knit beanies, holding red folders with lyrics, the men clapped and stepped side to side in tandem as they belted out the lines of the African American spiritual Christmas carol “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born.

Tourists paused, redirecting their attention from selfies and turning their cameras on the men. And suddenly, these men, who for most of their days feel invisible, were seen.

Later the choir would stand in the ornate foyer of the home of the first African American president. And sing again.

It was only last month that Donal Noonan, a burly, bald Irishman who serves as a church musical director at the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta, received the call from the White House inviting his choir of homeless men to sing during one of the residence’s holiday tours. Since then, Southwest Airlines comped their flights. DC-based Baron Tours gave them a tour bus to transport them around the nation’s capital. The Crowne Plaza dramatically discounted their stay and provided a free buffet dinner. And donations poured in from all over the world to help the Atlanta Homeward Choir come to Washington.

[The amazing journey that is bringing these homeless singers to the White House]

The men were dressed top to bottom in brand-new clothes bought with the donated funds. Beneath their jackets, they wore matching black slacks, light-blue button-down shirts, black ties, and shiny black dress shoes. They traveled with matching duffel bags embroidered with the choir’s name.

“The choir is everything because we’re all in the same situation, when you meet someone in the similar situation and you all have similar gifts to share, which is singing, that’s a good bond,” Coine, 37, said. “You grow to love these guys. It’s a real good thing.”

Coine has been homeless since August, when he lost his job as a hotel housekeeper. He does odd jobs such as raking leaves and washing cars for cash, and he’s still looking for a full-time job. He has a daughter in Louisiana he hasn’t seen in eight months.

Several years ago, Coine, who has a warm smile and dreams of being a writer, was in jail on drug trafficking charges.

“Just being able to know the extremes I went through from being behind bars to being in the highest house in the land,” he said, “It gave me a lot of hope for my future. …Being homeless puts a damper on your life. Seeing all the people clapping and cheering, it’s a real genuine feeling.”

Before their dual singing engagements, the men stopped to tour the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. They posed for photos, one by one, under the stone with the quote, “Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” Mountains have become something of a symbol for the group.

Coine stood at the base of the looming 30-foot statue of King, rested one hand on the stone and bowed his head in prayer.

“I wanted him to know I appreciate all the scars and the hell he went through to get us here,” Coine said, thankful despite his personal struggles.

Many of the men – a diverse group of old and young, college educated and not, Christian and Muslim – had never visited Washington before. Some had never been on an airplane.

Austin, 55, a Navy veteran originally from Pittsburgh, was one of the few who had. He’d traveled all over the world with the military and lived in Washington for several years in the late 1980s. He moved to Atlanta in 1994 for all the job opportunities ahead of the 1996 Olympics. He lost his full-time job in 2008 and by 2011 could no longer afford housing.

“You adjust,” he said. “Time makes you adjust. The more you’re in it and you don’t like it, the more you try to pull yourself out of it.”

The choir is a reminder that there’s more to life than being homeless, said Neal, 61, one of the oldest of the group and the longest on the streets. He’s been homeless for 15 years. Being in the choir “makes me want to do more for myself,” he said.

Their group is a reflection of the entire homeless population, helping to change perceptions, to make people see them as humans.

At the Lincoln Memorial, the crowd of tourists gathered in a wide circle around the choir, transfixed as the men sang their rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ever-haunting “Hallelujah.”

“You’ll forgive us we have to leave you now,” Noonan said teasingly after they performed four songs, “because we have to go sing at the White House.”

Several hours later, in the grandiose entrance hall of the White House, Noonan played the mahogany 1938 Steinway grand piano for two hours as his choir performed for people touring the East Wing holiday decorations.

Back in Atlanta, Noonan’s church partners with a neighboring church to run the Central Night Shelter, where the men escape the cold from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. every day. He started the choir after seeing the men waiting each morning in a food line for breakfast on his way to work. He wanted to bring them some joy – and a purpose.

But on Monday, some of them also wondered what would come next. After a whirlwind three days of reliable meals, warm hotel beds and star treatment, they’d return to Atlanta the same as they were: homeless.

Noonan worried about that, too. How could he use this attention to change these men’s lives permanently?

“We’re really confident that we have somewhere to go,” Noonan said. “That we need to go somewhere. People were breaking stereotypes today. We know it can’t just be something simple, it can’t just be something to put a smile on someone’s face.”

Back in the hotel, before their Thanksgiving-style buffet dinner, they gathered in the entrance of the hotel bar, wearing matching cobalt blue hooded sweatshirts branded with their choir name. On the television, a national news show featured their visit.

When the segment ended, everyone there cheered.

For a night they were not homeless men. They were stars.