Before Jewel was strumming our heartstrings with songs like “Foolish Games,” she was homeless and struggling to make ends meet. As someone who knows firsthand the importance of having a stable place to call home, the ReThink Ambassador chats with us about changing the way people look at public housing.
You probably agree — as do most people who are polled on the subject — that everyone deserves a safe place to call home. But, like so many, you may also dislike the idea of having public housing near your own home.
Such, says Jewel, is the problem in perception surrounding a viable solution to our country’s shortage of affordable housing and, worse, the epidemic of homelessness. To help shift perception, she is serving her second year as ambassador for the ReThink campaign — an initiative challenging the sometimes-negative perceptions Americans have about public housing by sharing inspirational stories of public housing’s profound effect on its residents and their communities.
“The ReThink campaign is really close to my heart because I know firsthand what it’s like to not have a stable place to live — and to have stereotypes put on you about what people think of you just because you’re at a disadvantage,” said Jewel.
The singer opened up about the assumptions people make about those who are down on their luck, such as they must be lazy or addicted to drugs.
“For me, I just wouldn’t sleep with the boss, and he wouldn’t give me my paycheck,” she explained. “So I couldn’t pay my rent, and there it was. You know, I was living out of my car, and my car got stolen. I couldn’t hold down jobs because I was sick and also didn’t have the college education to get offered better jobs, so I was definitely in this poverty cycle. It had nothing to do with me being lazy.”
As such, Jewel’s early life lacked any true sense of home. “We moved around so much, and I spent so much of my life being unstable,” said the singer, who used to think of home as “any warm space” where she could “lock a door.”
Now that she has a child of her own — nearly-3-year-old son, Kase — the importance of home resonates in an entirely new way. “Being able to provide a home and everything that a home means for my child is really wonderful for both of us,” she states. “I really love it.”
It is being a mother, in part, that makes her work with the ReThink campaign so meaningful for the star. While living with a friend in public housing in Anchorage, Alaska, she was struck by how harshly the community was viewed by others when, in reality, it was mainly single mothers just trying to support their children.
“If you look at the numbers, 42 percent of people in public housing are children,” Jewel referenced, “and 31 percent are elderly.”
For a child, she says, routine and stability are everything. “It really uproots and makes a child feel deeply, deeply insecure when they don’t have a clear sense of belonging or a roof over their head. I lived through it — I know how difficult it is — and I feel really blessed that I get to provide that for Kase,” she said.
It’s something the soft-hearted singer would happily hand out if she could. “I wish that for every mom,” she lamented. “It breaks my heart that there might be a woman in an abusive relationship, and she can’t afford to leave her abusive husband because she can’t support the children on her own. It’s very difficult.”
Although public housing serves a great need in this country by providing homes for approximately 2.2 million people, the need is far greater than that. There are at least half a million people across the U.S. waiting for public housing to become available — most of whom, Jewel says, are just hard-working people trying to get back on their feet, like mothers with young children or veterans with disabilities.
“I was certainly somebody, when I was homeless, who could really have used a hand,” she explained. “I worked my way out of it, but a lot of people don’t. And it’s not that I wanted a hand forever… it’s just that it’s really hard without a little boost to break that poverty cycle.”
When asked what she loves most about returning to her own home after time away, Jewel pauses. “A lot of little things… sleeping in your own bed. Being able to cook your own food. Having a refrigerator,” she laughed. “It’s amazing how the little things really add up to such a sense of happiness and peace for me.”
Aptly, the four-time Grammy Award-nominated singer-songwriter will be writing new lyrics about why housing matters to help raise awareness of the many benefits of public housing.
Now through May 14, people are invited to go to www.ReThinkHousing.org and submit a short personal essay or a photo that captures the essence of why housing matters to them. Afterwards, the public can cast their vote for their favorite entry, and the top 10 will serve as inspiration to Jewel as she writes the new song. One lucky winner will even be flown to Los Angeles to hang out with the singer and hear her perform the song.
Above all, though, Jewel hopes the ReThink campaign will inspire tolerance.
“The country has become so polarized and so divided that we kind of forget that we’re all really in the same boat, no matter what religion, color, or creed we are,” she reflected, “and we’re all struggling for the same things — a sense of connection and a sense of community and a sense of belonging.”