"I think a lot of people lose sight of the fact that they are so busy trying to fill their houses with things that they forget that some people don't even have homes," explains singer/songwriter Jewel, the national ambassador for the ReThink initiative, an awareness program asking people to rethink their perceptions concerning public housing. "A home is a very important thing, it's crucial to our lives. Actually, some scientists have been able to show that kids who are homeless and don't have that kind of security really suffer from trauma. Their brain's experience trauma. A lot of surveys have also shown that over 80 percent of Americans believe that their fellow citizens deserve a safe and affordable place to live. But, over 50 percent don't want public housing in the neighborhoods. So, there is really a disconnect between the need and the perception. I wanted to do some about that. Helping to solve homelessness is something that means a lot to me."
Earlier this year, Jewel and the ReThink Initiative launched the "Why Housing Matters" contest asking Americans to think about their homes and why housing matters to them. Jewel needed their inspiration for a song she planned to write as an anthem for ReThink. Hundreds of people shared stories, photos and thoughts of what housing means. "I wrote a song which was inspired by all the entries," the award-winning songwriter and performer says. "And, we narrowed it down to ten." The winning entry came from Silvia Kearney of Akron, Ohio. Her entry “Home to Me
” was used by Jewel as the basis for her new song.
"'Home To Me
' was the one, because Silvia (Kearney) really touched me with her paragraph about what home meant to her," Jewel admits. "But all of the ideas were great and touching. We all felt that it summed up the core of what home really means — safety, security and the chance for hope."
"Look at the roof kind of slanted
the kind of thing someone takes for granted
not me, oh no, you see, it’s a thing of beauty
it may not look like much to you,
but that's ok, it does not have to
a house is more than what you fill it with, you see
to me it’s the basic human right for dignity and safety."
- a portion of the lyrics from “Home to Me” by Jewel.
In 1995, Jewel's debut album, Pieces of You
— which spawned the hit singles "Who Will Save Your Soul," "You Were Meant for Me" and "Foolish Games" — would go fifteen-times platinum, becoming one of the best-selling debut albums of all time. However, not long very long before she hit the top of the charts, Jewel lived out of her car, since she had no permanent roof over her head. Her personal story of homelessness is just one example of the millions of Americans who struggle to keep a roof over their heads, including the families and children who call public housing home.
Born in Payson, Utah, Jewel Kilcher was raised in Homer, Alaska with her father. Although her house didn't have indoor plumbing, it was still a home. As she got older, she would help her dad (Atz Kilcher) earn money by singing in local Alaskan hangouts. "I basically grew up singing with my dad at bars, and we did five hour sets of cover songs, almost every night," 40-year-old Jewel recalls. "My parents divorced when I was eight, and my dad and I became a duo. We sang at Veterans clubs and bank openings, and biker bars and honky-tonks all over the state. My dad is a good performer. He stressed punctuality and being professional."
By the time she became a teenager, she decided to leave home. "I moved out on my own when I was 15, paying rent and having to support myself," she says. She soon applied to a fine arts school in Michigan, called Interlochen, and was accepted on a partial scholarship. "I raised the rest of the money by doing my first solo show ever at the local high school in the auditorium. I had always backed my dad up, but this time I sang a variety of Cole Porter songs I loved, backed up by a friend who played piano." Her hometown of Homer, Alaska would help her raise close to $11,000 to send her to school in Michigan.
"I majored in classical voice and art and minored in dance and drama," she recalls of her time at Interlochen. "When I was sixteen, though, during spring break, all kids had to leave the campus. But I couldn’t afford to get to Alaska, so I decided to learn four chords on the guitar (my dad had always played guitar, not me) and get on a train in Detroit to busk my way across the country. I made up lyrics about what I saw traveling. It took several days to sing my way across the country — earning my ticket money one street corner at a time when the train stopped."
Jewel would make it all the way to San Diego before crossing the border into Mexico, soon finding herself in Cabo San Lucas. She would hitchhike throughout the country, staying at youth hostels and singing in exchange for food. She scrapped up enough money to make it back to school in Michigan. It was during this time she discovered she was a songwriter. Jewel would write the song “Who Will Save Your Soul," about the people she met on her travels.
Deciding college was not for her, after graduating from high school a year early, she traveled to San Diego and found a job answering phones at a computer warehouse. It was in Southern California where she would soon find herself without a home to call her own.
"I was homeless at eighteen, because I wouldn't have sex with the boss," she confesses. "He wouldn't give me my paycheck, so I couldn't pay my rent that day. And I actually got kicked out later that day. Then I was living in my car, trying to get back on my feet, trying to save up enough money for another apartment. Then my car got stolen. It was just this really vicious poverty cycle, because it's very difficult to get a job if you don't even have an address to put on my resume. Everything really, really works against you."
Although she would become an acclaimed singer/songwriter in less than a year's time (after a local radio station played a bootleg of "Who Will Save Your Soul," which would lead to a recording contract), Jewel says she's never been able to shake her time being homeless. And, now that she is the position to, she is doing every thing can to raise public awareness about affordable housing.
According to the ReThink Initiative, public housing provides homes and services for approximately 2.2 million people in the U.S. However, the need is much greater than that. Given current economic and federal budget conditions, public housing availability continues to decrease, while the need for it continues to grow. Additionally, public housing offers more than a roof over someone’s head. It provides the stability a father needs to develop job skills or a mom needs to earn a college degree, and it provides services for veterans, the disabled and seniors.
"People just need to be educated about the subject," she says. "What public housing offers is an affordable place you live until you are able to get back on your feet. It also allows single parents, who are raising kids, the chance to further their education. What a lot of people don't know is that in our country, over 30 perfect of children and over 40 perfect of the elderly make up our homeless. I just think that a lot of Americans don't realize how many of the families in our country are one paycheck away from being homeless.
"I mean, if anything happens, if a working parents gets in an accident or if their kid gets sick, they're homeless, they don't have the money to cover something as basic as rent," Jewel adds. "I think people tend to think that public housing is a free ride. It's really a perception problem, in my opinion. It just means education, I am very happy to help out."
Over the years, Jewel has given her time and money to a variety of worthy causes, but providing public housing to those most in need is a number one priority for her. "I try to get behind things that are really close to my heart like ReThink," she explains. "I really think that the things that separate us as a society usually has to do with a lack of education. And, there are not a lot of organizations that actually focus on that. That's why I am proud of my work with ReThink, because we not raising funds or asking people for anything expect to take a new look at an old problem like homelessness."
Recently, the four-time Grammy nominee released a greatest hits collection, a holiday-themed CD (Let It Snow
) and an album of lullabies for her three-year-old son, Kase (Jewel Lullaby
). This past June saw the release of the country-influenced single "Sing On." For the fall of 2015, Jewel is planning to have some more new music for her fans to listen to. "I'm working on a new record," she says. "It is going to be a bookend to Pieces Of You
. It's going to be very raw and stripped down. I am probably going to go independent. I am going to do it without a record label, because I want to be able to be a mom and I know I don't have four months of a promo tour in me. This way I can do things the way I want."
In the meantime, Jewel is spending her time penning a manuscript that she hopes will help others make their way through difficult times. "I am writing a book right now that will be kind of a memoir-slash-self-help book," she explains. "It'll just be me talking about very practical things that helped move out at fifteen, how I dealt with being homeless and being statistic. Usually girls like me, with my background, end up pregnant or on drugs. They end up having a very different and difficult life. The way I tackled my life was by doing very pragmatic things. It's important that we share our life experiences with one another. We have the power to inspire each other in ways you can't imagine. You just have to make the effort."
Jewel’s inspirational song, "Home To Me," is available for free download at www.ReThinkHousing.org.
Visit www.ReThinkHousing.org to experience inspirational stories of public housing – and rethink its impact on individuals, families and your own community.