When Deborah Gilmore first fell into homelessness, it was a “shock” that thrust her life into uncertainty. “Have you ever been in a situation where you’re traumatized by something or by something that you just didn’t expect to happen?” the San Luis Obispo resident asked. That’s what it was like coping with the daily reality of having no roof over your head. “You’re present, but your mind isn’t in the present,” she said.
Gilmore, however, wasn’t fully without options. In fact, one skill in particular has served her well as she sees her way through what she calls her “plight”: music. Get unlimited digital access Subscribe now for just $2 for 2 months. CLAIM OFFER HOW SINGING PROVIDED A PATH OUT OF HOMELESSNESS Gilmore’s experience with homelessness started several years ago in Santa Ynez Valley as a result of what she describes as a private family issue that resulted in her losing her housing, after which she moved to SLO to get back on her feet. Near the start of her stretch of homelessness, Gilmore said she began to reconnect with her love of music while visiting a Santa Barbara library. There, she was able to listen to some of her favorite artists, including Nancy Wilson, Natalie Cole, Frank Sinatra and Al Jarreau, whom she called a “huge influence” on her performances.
With that realization, Gilmore said she began putting together a plan to get herself in front of audiences and get an act together. She recruited Cal Poly music students and local musicians to fill out her band, which provides live instrumentals to accompany her vocals. Gilmore, who does not read or write music, said working with professionals brings her “joy” because of their wide musical range. “They’re saying all this music lingo (in rehearsals) and I’m just looking at them saying ‘So, when do you guys want me to come in?’” she said.
“I’m in heaven, because I’m singing everything I ever wanted to sing.” Since deciding to pursue music, Gilmore has done more than 70 shows, performing at venues like The Fremont Theatre, Mama’s Meatballs and The Penny, usually charging $15 for a ticket. Now, Gilmore is starting a stretch of promotional shows leading up to one of the biggest venues she’s had the chance to perform at: the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo on Oct. 25 at 7:30 p.m. “All this work for the last two years has positioned me to now go take on something like the PAC,” Gilmore said. It just means more sponsors — I’m doing the same thing I’ve been doing for two years, but the bill is a little higher. I’ve got to increase my ticket sales and increase my sponsorships, but what a grand stage — the work will be worth it all.”
COMMUNITY MEMBERS AND LOCAL BUSINESSES HELPED PROPEL GILMORE’S PERFORMANCES In a world she believes has a “lack of compassion” for unhoused people, Gilmore said the SLO community has accepted her and her aspirations as a musician. When she became homeless in SLO, she was alone, without the structured life she had grown up with as part of a military family. “In the beginning, I didn’t know how to ask you for help — I was too scared to ask,” Gilmore said.
“You’re the person that could feed me the data and the person that could help me in some way. I didn’t know how to do that. “ Living day-to-day in hotels and temporary living situations, Gilmore has put together income by panhandling and working to promote her music career, calling herself an “entrepreneur homeless person.” Deborah Gilmore is a local jazz vocalist who is experiencing homelessness. She’s using her music to raise money and support while she looks for a home seen here Aug. 25, 2022.
David Middlecamp David Middlecamp@thetribunenews.com During the day, Gilmore often moves around the community, hanging fliers for her next shows and forming connections with local business owners to promote her performances.
Angela Arnold, manager of the Rocket Fizz candy shop in downtown SLO, said she was happy to sponsor Gilmore, including allowing her to hang one of her promotional posters in the store window. She said her business has also helped Gilmore financially in exchange for advertising the business at her shows. “It depends on each concert, but I think we did a $200 donation, and she put our name on her flyer,” Arnold said.
Another local business owner, Mint & Craft’s Josh Ashby, said he’s been backing the performances since he first met Gilmore in 2021. He said his business has been “happy” to sponsor Gilmore through donations, free meals and a space for her performances. “The way she always talks about it is, ‘Hey, let’s help each other,’ which I really appreciate,” Ashby said. “She looks down at it like it’s not just about me, it’s also about you and your business.”
Gilmore has performed from Mint & Craft’s patio space for customers and passersby, which Ashby said his customers have appreciated. “Everyone absolutely loves it,” Ashby said. “She’s incredible, and she’s got such a presence of about her — I love it — just this kind of energy she carries around the music.” Ashby said he’s “amazed” by how many people and businesses in the SLO community have supported Gilmore during her time as a performer. All of her promotion, Gilmore said, is done through word of mouth and help from community members; that includes some 30 sponsors. “The more that I’m doing these events, the more people chat up about it,” she said.
“It’s a small community, so the word will spread fast. Instagram has been super powerful.” On Gilmore’s Instagram — named @mobettajazzmusic in honor of director Spike Lee’s 1990 film “Mo’ Better Blues” — she has amassed more than 600 followers, who she keeps updated on her work and new shows. In the leadup to her performance at the PAC, Gilmore is holding a series of promotional shows at businesses like Mint & Craft Sept. 4 and Ragtag Wine Co. Sept. 10 and Oct. 8, along with a show at Antigua Brewing Company on Sept. 25. Gilmore also said she takes donations on GoFundMe to fund her upcoming event at the PAC.
MUSIC KEPT GILMORE’S MIND STRONG DURING THE WORST STRESSES OF HOMELESSNESS Gilmore said the pressures of living in a state of constant instability has caused her trauma and stress, enough that it’s impacted her physical health just as much as her mental health. Prior to her period of homelessness and move to SLO, Gilmore had worked for around 30 years as a soccer referee at all levels of play, from high school to semi-professional men’s leagues in Santa Maria. She said her background in sports made her mind and body strong enough to weather the worst of her experience with homelessness.
“I don’t have a drug issue. I don’t have a mental issue, nor an alcohol issue,” she said. “I’m educated and right of mind. It’s been a blessing to be in right mind in spite of this trauma.” Since becoming homeless, Gilmore has found shelter at night in motels and the homes of people who have opened their doors for her. Now, as her music has become more successful, Gilmore said she has a chance to move into more permanent housing in SLO County. “If a person can endure this type of living for years, that shows the strength that we have as human beings, but it’s not what we should be fighting for,” Gilmore said.
“This country can do better than that.” She said depending on the success of the PAC event, she has a shot at being noticed by people who could connect her with larger opportunities. As those opportunities open up, travel to other cities, states and countries may also be possible. In the short term, though, Gilmore has found a place to live in Atascadero, which she hopes to move into soon. “This is how I’m surviving, doing my music,” she said. “The music is saying to the world, ‘I’m not going to give up.’