Jewel Talks Public Housing, Homelessness & Miley Cyrus' VMAs Date

Courtesy of ReThink
Jewel

It's been almost 20 years since Jewel's iconic debut, Pieces of You, introduced the world to her singular talent. But the singer-songwriter hasn't forgotten her roots, and she's certainly never forgotten the struggles she endured while attempting to make her way in the world as an artist and human being.

So it's fitting that Jewel has teamed up with ReThink, an initiative asking Americans to rethink their perceptions of public housing. In addition to releasing "Home To Me," a free song that finds her reflecting on the importance of a real home (you can stream it below and download it for free at ReThinkHousing.org), Jewel spoke with Billboard about a variety of topics, both public and personal. 

Jewel shares her thoughts on the misconceptions about public housing, her own experience with homelessness, why her upcoming album reminds her of her debut, and what she thinks about Miley Cyrus' formerly homeless VMAs date. It's not uncommon for someone to claim people in public housing units are just "lazy" or "coasting by." Why do you think some people look at it that way?

It's a lack of education. People need to know how it happens and how it works. As a kid, my best friend in Anchorage grew up in the projects and I was over at her house all the time. They worked really hard, but her mom was a single mom, no education, trying to get herself back through school and cleaning hotel rooms in her spare time. It doesn't pay great. Try to get yourself through school supporting a child on that. So public hosuing provides a safe place for a lot of people to get back on their feet -- which a lot of families and parents do. A lot of people don't realize there are hard-working families who are one paycheck away from homelessness every month. If something goes wrong -- their car gets wrecked, their child is sick, an unforeseen payment comes up -- they're in serious trouble. These aren't lazy people.

What do you think the main misconceptions are about public housing?

We know that over 80 percent of Americans believe that our fellow citizens are entitled to safe, affordable housing. But over 50 percent don't want it in their neighborhood. There's a lot of stigma about who lives there. I think there are a lot of incorrect misconceptions about who lives in public housing -- that they get a free ride, which isn't the case. They pay rent, they pay their bills -- it's just controlled so that it's more affordable. There's 2.2 million in public housing now, but the need is even greater because the economic conditions we're in. In places like Washington, D.C., there's 80,000 people on a waiting list for 8,000 units. It's overwhelming. But some are really successful. Somewhere in Wisconsin they have one of the highest graduation rates, because they assure as part of public housing, you have to graduate high school and be involved. They have almost an 80 percent high school graduation rate, which is so far above the national average it's not even funny.

You've dealt with homelessness in your past, while living in San Diego. Did you feel stigmatized?

Certainly. I used to wash my hair in the public restrooms of Denny's and women would give me really filthy looks. Men were predatory. I can name example after example. I was turned away from so many places. You couldn't get a job because you're too young and you can't put down an address or P.O. Box. I remember one time I saved up money street singing for a manicure, which is a really funny thing to do. But I wanted to have a nice, cute, clean, girlie experience. So I found where you could get free food at happy hours -- I never drank, but I found out where you could get free wings and things like that at bars. So I saved my money and went in for the manicure, but they wouldn't see me. They turned me away.

How did "Home To Me" come about?

I based it on letters submitted to ReThink, people talking about why housing matters to them. People forget a house is more than what you're filling it with. I think we get so material focused when we do have so much money, that people forget what home provides: Safety, and a chance for education that you don't get otherwise.

Miley Cyrus recently brought a formerly homeless youth to the VMAs, and let him use her acceptance speech to give voice to the 1.7 homeless youth in America. What did you think of that?

That's awesome. Good for her. I didn't see it, but just from what you're telling me, I love to hear that. Most kids who are on the street are there because it's safer on the street than in their home. Again, there's a stigma that these are bad kids or something -- but no kid just wants to not be in their home, unless it's not safe. You're just condemned to making money illegally, because you're too young to make money legally. It's this awful loop in the system. They're vulnerable -- you can't get a job when you're 15, it's really hard. Very compromised.

"Home To Me" is a political song -- does that indicate the direction of your 2015 album?

This song is a throwback to Pieces of You, but it didn't influence my new album. I was already planning on making the new album a bookend to my first album.

How far are you into that album?

I have 30 songs, so I'm actually trying to decide if I'm going to do a double record or whittle it down to 14. It reminds me a lot of my first record. It's very raw and genre-less in the way that Pieces of You was. It has heavy folk influence but there's country and pop-rock influences as well. But my hope is to keep it raw and unproduced -- I'm not looking at radio, I'm not looking at singles, I'm not focusing on genre, I'm not focusing on a label. I'm going to go completely independent on it and release a record I love.