Gwendolyn Kuhlmann performing in 'Last Five Years' at Theater O-TonArt in Berlin. Frank Wesner
Gwendolyn Kuhlmann performing in 'Last Five Years' at Theater O-TonArt in Berlin. (Frank Wesner)

Meet the Opera Singer Teaming Up with Homeless Mothers to Work Toward Housing Solutions

Meet the Opera Singer Teaming Up with Homeless Mothers to Work Toward Housing Solutions

When American mezzo-soprano Gwendolyn Kuhlmann returned to the United States after 10 years in Berlin, she found herself in a state of reverse culture shock.

She'd established a career in opera and married her husband in a country with extensive unemployment protections, federal family leave, universal healthcare and a robust programs for refugees. Newly settled in the Bay Area, however, she was appalled to find that such a wealthy region was home to thousands of unsheltered people living in sprawling, unsanitary tent encampments while luxury condos towered overhead—and that those who did have housing struggled to keep up with the rising cost of living.

Recognizing her relatively privileged position, Kuhlmann got to work. She began volunteering with a utility advocacy organization called Service Workers Project for Affordable Water and Utilities (SWPAWU), which helps people on the brink of having their water or power shut off navigate bureaucracy and manage payment plans. From there, she got involved with the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness.

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Through activism and volunteering, Kuhlmann got to know another, less visible side of the housing crisis: homeless families living out of cars, RVs and relatives' houses.

From the outside, one might not even realize that these families don't have permanent housing: the children go to school and their parents are employed. One such mother Kuhlmann knows has been a full-time guidance counselor at the Berkeley Unified School District for 20 years. But difficult circumstances, such as medical expenses and exorbitant rent hikes, pushed them into housing instability.

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Kuhlmann knew she wanted to devote her musical talents to a project addressing the homelessness crisis, but she wasn't sure what approach to take, exactly, until her life took a turn. "The big turning point was telling my pianist I'm pregnant. She was like, 'Are we going to do this?'" she recalls. 

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That's when Kuhlmann and her pianist, Elena Levina, decided to focus their upcoming recital of Schubert's Winterreisse, a sorrowful 19th-century song cycle about a homeless traveler in the dead of winter, on mothers facing housing instability. To bring Winterreisse into the modern day, Kuhlmann interviewed five women she got to know through her advocacy work to accompany its songs. She calls the performance the Winter's Journey Project, which takes place Saturday, May 11 (during Mother's Day weekend), at the Resurrection Lutheran Church in Oakland.

"I thought, I want to know from people who’ve faced adversity, how do you continue being a good mom to your kids? How do you explain this to your kids?" Kuhlmann says.

As Gwendolyn Kuhlmann got to know through her advocacy work, homeless families must always be ready to relocate. She shines a light on homeless mothers' struggles through her 'Winter's Journey Project.'
As Gwendolyn Kuhlmann got to know through her advocacy work, homeless families must always be ready to relocate. She shines a light on homeless mothers' struggles through her 'Winter's Journey Project.' (Gwendolyn Kuhlmann)

One mother that Kuhlmann got to know, Christine Hernandez, lived out of a U-Haul with her husband and four kids after losing the abandoned house where she and her family had been squatting. Kuhlmann and another advocate teamed up to help Hernandez navigate the social services system, which they quickly realized was a full-time job.

"If you’re trying to keep your life going, and you’re doing your work or whatever, and you have kids, and you’re having to navigate all this—even with a team of two people working as much as they could on it, it's still insane," she says. 

The mothers Kuhlmann interviewed spoke of predatory landlords, the struggle to create a sense of normalcy for their kids and the lack of pathways back to stable housing.

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"It's something to have to choose between clean clothes and transportation, being a single mother of five kids," one mother quoted in the project says.

Still, the mothers speak with pride about their resilience, their "hustle" mentality and the ways they've found power through activism.

The goal of the Winter's Journey Project is to spark a dialogue about the homelessness crisis from a heartfelt place, and to move concertgoers to action. With no one turned away for lack of funds, Kuhlmann hopes housing-insecure people will attend the concert, as well as policymakers and classical music fans—who tend to be older, wealthy and white.

"Maybe this is a really emotional way to open the door for people in my realm of classical music to have new ways of thinking about it," Kuhlmann says.

"I think people don't understand why it’s happening. Maybe people think it’s because you need to work hard, you need to be educated," Levina adds. "I feel on a political level, some changes have to be made."

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The Winter's Journey Project raises money for the Resurrection Lutheran Church's forthcoming affordable housing project—which will develop an existing church-owned building to contain up to seven low-income units and, possibly, an affordable, non-religious daycare center.

"It's very, very awful and very ungodly that here we are at church, and we have this building that’s just sitting there," says Nancy Meginness, the office manager of the Resurrection Lutheran Church, adding that the congregation is in the process of approving a final plan for the building. "We're going to see where this takes us as far as more involvement with the homeless and how we can take that on as a mission."

While Kuhlmann is cautious about suggesting specific policy changes, she wants Winter's Journey Project to inspire discussions about how people think of property ownership in the United States. With four vacant properties per homeless resident in Oakland, something isn't adding up, she suggests. Last year, Oakland voters passed a ballot measure to fine the owners of vacant properties $6,000 annually if they don't rent out their units. But many property owners opt to keep properties empty and pay the fine, anticipating a windfall of cash when they sell the property in months or years to come.

"We can build all we want, but if someone can buy it and do what they do with it, can we build ourselves out of this?" Kuhlmann questions.

"Let's take it out from under the rug. Let's Marie Kondo this shit. This is not bringing us joy. What do we have to let go of in our concept of how capitalism works and what ownership means?"

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The Winter's Journey Project takes place Saturday, May 11, at the Resurrection Lutheran Church in Oakland. Details here

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