For blues and soul singer Mighty Sam McClain, homelessness was a blessing in disguise.
Like the other obstacles in his life — from abuse at his stepfather’s hands to his years spent picking cotton and hauling hay in Louisiana — homelessness “was the only way that I had to go to get to be the man I am,” McClain said in a recent interview. “This was my road, this is my path.”
Still, the Grammy-nominated performer added, his bouts with homelessness were some of the loneliest moments of his life.
“I was in Nashville and it was snowing and I felt so alone,” he recalled. “I could almost see every human being on the planet earth in my mind … and I couldn’t see that one somebody that I knew I could call and say, ‘Help,’ and they would want to help me.”
McClain called homelessness “a serious, serious issue” that is frequently misunderstood.
“Most people think that people out there are lazy, don’t want to work, or are uneducated,” he said. “That’s totally untrue. There are whole families out there that are working, have jobs and they’re still homeless.”
In an effort to combat these stereotypes, McClain will perform tomorrow at a benefit concert hosted by the nonprofit organization Give US Your Poor at Dorchester’s famed Strand Theatre, with 100 percent of proceeds going to help Boston’s homeless.
The concert — which kicks off two days of “Boston Helps the Homeless: Awareness to Action” events, including a day of volunteer service at area shelters on Saturday — will also feature sets by fellow professional musicians Natalie Merchant, Mario Frangoulis and Buffalo Tom, as well as a number of artists who either are now or were once homeless themselves.
One of them, spoken word performer Julia Dinsmore, grew up on welfare.
“I come from lower-class, Irish Catholic, humble people,” she said. “I come from generational poverty in America.”
As a response to the barrage of indignities she faced every day as a welfare mother, Dinsmore penned an autobiographical spoken word piece entitled, “My Name Is Not ‘Those People.’”
Reciting the opening lines of the piece during an interview, Dinsmore’s voice bends around the cadence of her words: “My name is not ‘those people.’ I’m a loving woman, a mother, in pain, giving birth to the future where my baby has the same chance as anyone.”
In a testament to the power of art to transcend poverty and politics, Dinsmore’s piece has been studied in colleges and schools around the country, recited on the floor of the U.S. Senate, read by Danny Glover for a Give US Your Poor CD, and published as a book earlier this year.
“I taught myself how to write and now I’m just praying to God that I’m going to get out of poverty now,” laughed Dinsmore, who will perform the piece at the Strand tomorrow.
The concert will be hosted in partnership with the City of Boston and the Fannie Mae Foundation and is sponsored by Ipswitch, a Massachusetts software company. It is part of a larger project at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies’ Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts-Boston designed to increase understanding about homelessness and its solutions.
Give US Your Poor Project Director John McGah started the initiative when he noticed that the most pervasive ideas about homelessness were basically misinformed myths.
“The more I read about it, the more [I saw that] the myths that homeless people are lazy, they’re all mentally ill, they choose to be homeless didn’t quite hold up,” said McGah, a research fellow at the McCormack Graduate School. “It was more issues of domestic violence, real lack of affordable housing for low-income people, poverty in general, lack of health care — real structural things.”
The project aims to “reach a more mainstream audience to dispel these myths and show there are solutions to homelessness if we have the will to do it,” he said.
Concertgoers tomorrow will receive a card listing 20 things they can do to make a difference. Among the simplest of the suggestions: acknowledge a homeless person’s request for money with eye contact and an easy “Sorry, I can’t.”
“Just make that eye contact and break down that disconnect,” McGah suggested.
McClain, meanwhile, believes that “people should help with every means that they can.”
“If you have more money than you need, find some sort of way to give it away — you can’t take it with you when you die!” he said in a tone of simultaneous goodwill and admonishment.
For McGah, as for McClain, music is an appropriate medium for their message.
“Music is an interesting way to look at homelessness because with homelessness comes disconnection from the larger community, politically, economically, spiritually,” McGah said. “To use music to identify our connectedness is kind of the whole point of this. It’s a powerful juxtaposition.”
“It’s our responsibility to take care of one another,” McClain asserted, noting that the main message of his music — of love and care for all — crosses all boundaries.
“I traveled all over the world to places where the language is nowhere even close to being understood,” he said. “But the music brings us together.”
The Give US Your Poor concert takes place at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 16 at the Strand Theatre, 543 Columbia Road, Dorchester. Tickets are $25-$110 and can be purchased online at www.ticketweb.com. For more information, visit www.giveusyourpoor.org.