Here’s what it’s like to be a musical ‘genius’ living on the streets of Redding
Alissa Johnson is homeless, but her musical ability has been described as 'genius.'
Damon Arthur, Redding Record Searchlight
Alissa Johnson sleeps on the ground in a vacant lot at night. When it rains, she finds a building with an awning outside that she can sleep under — holding her electric cello close.
The crumbling dirt-and-asphalt lot is one of the few places in Redding where she says police don’t roust her and send her packing in the middle of the night.
During the day, she walks to the nearby Redding Library and sits outside with other homeless on a curb, where people drive by and shout insults at them. People have thrown eggs and fired paintball guns at them.
Sometimes at night, people drive up to where she sleeps and shoot at her with Super Soaker-type water guns filled with urine.
But packed safely away from attackers and the harsh elements, she keeps her custom-made acoustic cello in basement storage.
Johnson doesn’t have a home to live in and some of her clothes are ragged and torn, but Kieun Steve Kim, the Music Department director at Simpson University, described her musical ability in terms he rarely uses.
“When I heard her play, her skills were amazing. Her expression was amazing. But it moved my heart. I do music every single day. Yes, my heart moves, but it doesn't easily move when I hear musical performances because I’ve heard a lot of different performances at different levels,” Kim said.
“I've been telling people that I think this is the best talent in Redding, so far, that I've experienced,” Kim said of Johnson. “I would say it's genius. I don't say that word much.”
Lives 'turned upside own'
Joseph Lee, who has worked with the homeless in Redding for many years, called Johnson's playing “exquisite.” But she is not alone among the talented and educated living on the streets, he said.
“These people have stories. It's absolutely shocking to me when I talk to somebody on the street who's got a Ph.D., or somebody who was in the medical profession or was a contractor,” Lee said.
“There are people on the street that because of some trauma, or some circumstance, whether a child got a catastrophic illness, or wife or husband committed suicide or passed and things just didn't go well from there. And yet, people tend to think that everybody that's out there on the street just chooses to be there. In reality, circumstances or situations just turned their life upside-down sometimes. And now they don't know how to get back,” Lee said.
And there are more people living on the streets than five years ago.
Shasta County homeless numbers rising
The official estimates of the number of homeless people in Shasta County vary widely. The annual Point in Time count of homeless is conducted on one day in the last week of January every year.
In 2020, volunteers found 1,529 homeless people in the county during the one-day count, according to the Shasta County Continuum of Care.
However, the nonprofit Shasta Community Health Center in Redding, has estimated that in 2020 there were as many as 3,000 people without adequate shelter in the county.
The number of homeless people in the United States fell about 10% from 2009 to 2019, according to an Urban Institute study published in 2020. However, that is not what is happening in Shasta County.
From 2016 to 2020 the number of homeless in the county rose about 63%, from 934 in 2016 to 1,529 in 2020, according to Point in Time reports.
For Johnson, a combination of several issues sent her life sliding sideways until she finally landed on the streets and in the hidden greenbelts of Redding nearly seven years ago.
She didn't want to be my mom
The 33-year-old grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, born to a mother who Johnson said didn’t like her. As a child, she was often ill from allergies, and she is on the autism spectrum, so she wasn’t what others considered “normal,” she said.
“She would remind me about that when I was growing up. I remember, I was tiny. I figure I was probably around 5 years old when she told me to go stand out on the side of the road and wait for the white van,” Johnson said.
“She said that she doesn't want to be my mom anymore, and that she's going to send me off to an orphanage,” she said.
While her mother did not follow through with those threats, Johnson suffered through abuse from one of her mother’s boyfriends, she said.
But at the age of 11, an elementary school teacher introduced her to the cello. It changed her life.