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Pearl Jam’s benefit concerts will do more than just raise millions for Seattle homelessness crisis

You might know Pearl Jam as the world’s most famous grunge band, or the soundtrack of your adolescent angst, or a group of talented yet totally reluctant rock stars. But Pearl Jam is also famous for taking a stand — and it’s doing exactly that in Seattle this week. 

The group is currently leveraging its star power to draw attention to the city’s homelessness crisis. With a pair of benefit concerts dubbed the Home Shows, a day of volunteerism between the performances on Aug. 8 and 10, and a successful effort to raise at least $10 million for the community, advocates say Pearl Jam has galvanized Seattleites in unprecedented ways. 

Stone Gossard, one of the band’s guitarists, said it just made sense for him and his bandmates — frontman Eddie Vedder, guitarist Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament, and drummer Matt Cameron — to step up.

“It was the simple fact that we all live here, and like anyone else who’s lived here for awhile — not to mention their whole lives, like some of us — we’ve seen the changes happening in our community,” he wrote in an email. “You can’t not see the increasing numbers of people who need help.” 

What seems obvious to one rock star, though, might look like daunting risk to another. There’s the danger of alienating fans who bristle at being told which causes they should care about, countless opportunities for a public relations nightmare, and the possibility that your good intentions could morph into opportunism or exploitation. Pearl Jam has managed to avoid those pitfalls and given other artists — and their communities — an example of what civic responsibility can look like at the local level when embraced by rock stars. 

The Home Shows are the band’s first Seattle gig in five years, so of course they sold out quickly. The performances are expected to draw 90,000 people from all over the world (full disclosure: this reporter will be in attendance, rocking out). 

The band, along with other members of the community, is matching donations (up to $960,000) to a new fundraising campaign called the Home Fund. It also enlisted dozens of major local businesses and sports teams, including Starbucks, Nordstrom, and the Seattle Mariners, to contribute to that fund. So far the band has raised a total of $11.5 million, which will eventually be distributed to local organizations working to alleviate and reduce homelessness in the Seattle area. 

Though planning for the Home Shows began last fall, the buildup for the performances came at an ideal time. A McKinsey&Company report published in May argued that homelessness has soared  over recent years in King County thanks to the steep rise in home rental prices — not because of population growth or the poverty level. While shelters and nonprofit organizations have gotten better at housing people, more people are becoming homeless, and the system to help them is overwhelmed with demand. 

Nearly 12,000 people are homeless on any given night in King County, and the McKinsey report estimated that spending needs to double to provide permanent shelter to those currently without a home. 

Meanwhile, the city just emerged from a bruising fight over a business tax that would’ve generated tens of millions of dollars for affordable housing. The tax was passed and then, following outcry from companies, repealed by the Seattle City Council in less than a month. (Amazon, which is a Home Shows partner, suggested it might leave the city over the bill.)

So if some homegrown rock stars want to take a crack at encouraging Seattleites to solve this complex problem, advocates are happy — even overjoyed — to let them try. 

“I feel this surge of this enthusiasm for these concerns.”

“I think folks were feeling like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s nothing that can be done,’ but I feel this surge of this enthusiasm for these concerns,” said Lauren McGowan, senior director for ending homelessness and poverty at United Way of King County, which is a key Home Shows partner, along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Schultz Family Foundation. “It really has reunited our community and reinvigorated people.” 

Pearl Jam invited ticket buyers to sign up for a Home Shows newsletter and more than 20,000 people signed up. Each issue contains information about how to help, along with videos and interviews with people experiencing homelessness.   

The Home Shows have also created somewhat of a fundraising frenzy. All sorts of initiatives have sprung up to promote the cause. Two winemakers who happen to be lifelong Pearl Jam fans made box sets of its “cult wine,” complete with “Home Show” labels designed by the band’s team, and sold them for $150 to benefit the Home Fund. They ran out of the 450 sets within minutes. More than 80 restaurants will donate a portion of their sales to the Home Shows fund on Aug. 8. 

The band released tickets to local nonprofit organizations for their own fundraising. McGowan said she was pleasantly surprised when new donors started sending in checks for thousands of dollars just to get a pair of coveted Home Show tickets. (Free passes have also been set aside for people who have experienced homelessness.)

The influx of cash is critical for the fund and organizations that serve the local homeless population, which is why there are concerted efforts to ensure it makes a real difference in the community. The band set up an 11-member advisory committee of advocates, funders, and experts to manage the distribution of money as well as to set the tone for the messaging around the effort. Gossard attended some of those meetings and, along with McCready, has appeared in YouTube videos that focus on the work of local leaders.  

Gossard said that highlighting their efforts is “one of the perks that comes with being in a band of some stature.” 

“It’s going to take time, and it’s going to take energy, and it’s going to take empathy.” 

“By focusing attention on the people on the front line — and I mean advocates and people experiencing homelessness — we have a chance to engage people in the issue,” he wrote. “Because making progress is going to take more than money. It’s going to take time, and it’s going to take energy, and it’s going to take empathy.” 

Colleen Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, a nonprofit organization that works with American Indian and Alaska Native people experiencing homelessness, appeared alongside both band members in a video, and serves on the advisory committee. 

“They’re bringing together the right people who know this work and who know to tackle it,” she said. “I think the beauty of this process and of the band getting involved is we’re able to reach this broader population that is not involved in the minutiae of [advocacy].” 

Both Echohawk and McGowan are hopeful that the Home Shows will create new momentum and political will to solve the problem of homelessness in Seattle and the broader region. That could translate, for example, into new support and taxpayer funding for affordable housing, new or increased commitment from volunteers, and more financial support for the nonprofit and grassroots organization serving people experiencing homelessness.  

“If it really can be something that helps to change the game and helps to reunite our community and bring folks forward toward a common vision and identifying more resources, that’s going to be a huge win,” McGowan said. 

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