By Matt Egan
LAS VEGAS (CNNMoney) — Singer and songwriter Jewel experienced firsthand just how vicious the poverty cycle can be.
Before becoming a Grammy-nominated artist, Jewel grew up so poor in Alaska that she had nowhere to live and resorted to shoplifting.
“I was a homeless kid who was stealing,” Jewel said this week at the SALT Conference in Las Vegas. “I didn’t have $40 to buy a dress, much less to get any housing.”
Speaking to a crowd of financial types who pay thousands of dollars to attend the event, Jewel spoke about the Inspiring Children Foundation, which helps at-risk youth.
She shared her life story to explain how demeaning it was to be homeless. Jewel recalled how people would literally back away from her. “People treated me like I was contagious. They thought the homelessness might spread to them,” she said.
In between performing songs for the crowd, Jewel said being homeless made her realize “what it was like to be an animal” because she had to focus entirely on food and shelter.
Jewel has spoken about her predicament before. Once she told The Hollywood Reporter that she was put out on the streets early in her singing career after getting fired by her boss for refusing to have sex with him.
Like other homeless people, Jewel was the product of a very difficult home life. She said her dad suffered from PTSD and was an alcoholic who became abusive.
“I never drank and never did drugs my whole life. The poverty cycle was just really hard to break,” said Jewel, whose struggles were also chronicled in her bestselling memoir “Never Broken.”
Eventually, Jewel was discovered at 19 years old “by accident” when she was singing in bars and coffee shops. Jewel negotiated a massive record deal, but fear led her to almost not sign it. For a lot of troubled youth, Jewel said, “opportunity often means you’re going to implode.”
Jewel ended selling 30 million albums, getting nominated for four Grammys and landing on the cover of Time — things she “never thought would be in the cards for someone with my background.”
Back when her life was in tatters, Jewel said she would have “killed” for the opportunities offered by the foundation to help at-risk youth. Inspiring Children, which Jewel’s Never Broken nonprofit program has partnered with, provides mentoring, entrepreneurial skill development and other tools to help young people find success.