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Give US Your Poor shines spotlight on homelessness

Victoria Cheng | 7/30/2009, 6:11 a.m.

With a four-act lineup featuring Boston indie rock trio Buffalo Tom, Greek tenor Mario Frangoulis, blues and soul singer Mighty Sam McClain and alternative rocker Natalie Merchant, last Friday’s Give US Your Poor concert to benefit the homeless stretched deep into the night.

The evening kicked off with a reception in the gold and mirrored hallways of Dorchester’s legendary Strand Theatre, which reopened especially to host the show.

Waiters circled with ceramic trays of California sushi rolls, beef crostini and tiny twice-baked potatoes as Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and newly inaugurated University of Massachusetts-Boston Chancellor Dr. J. Keith Motley told the assembled guests that homelessness is about more than just mental illness and addiction — that it also touches on the issues of family, jobs and affordable housing.

Black and white portraits of homeless people lined the walls in front of Menino and Motley: a young boy in a T-shirt smiling shyly at the camera; a woman with a wind-weathered face and soul-searching gaze; a strikingly pretty girl with freckles and a button nose.

Photographer Lynn Blodgett explained that her portraits are intended to force passersby to “look into the eyes of those who happen to be homeless” and to realize that “there is no single face of homelessness, no demographic or gender boundary.”

A few minutes after 8 p.m., Buffalo Tom bounded on-stage, with lead singer Bill Janovitz belted his way through “Ink Falling,” the band’s balladic track on the Give US Your Poor CD, released earlier this year by Appleseed Recordings. Janovitz explained that the song’s lyrics were written by Nick Flynn, a Boston resident who worked at the Pine Street Inn homeless shelter network.

Four songs later, the band vanished and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler appeared on three screens mounted above the stage to deliver a video message condemning homelessness.

Boston has a homeless population of over 6,000 men, women and children, Tyler noted.

“In a city as great as Boston, this is wrong,” the singer said.

In the Strand’s mezzanine, Tachauna Cardwell and Royelle Thimas, both 14, typed busily into their glowing cell phones, waiting for the next set to start. They were accompanied by Thimas’ father, Edward, who had been invited to the concert through his involvement as a volunteer with Children’s Services of Roxbury.

The three clapped along to Mario Frangoulis’ impassioned and operatic performance, punctuated by songs in English, Greek and Spanish, and by the appearance of 12-year-old Medford-native Kyla Middleton.

Middleton, her two younger brothers and her mother, Cheryl, became homeless in July 2003.

“I just couldn’t keep up with the rent,” Cheryl explained.

The family moved into a shelter hotel and lived there for almost a year, cooking meals in the room microwave and doing homework crowded “on top of each other,” Cheryl recalled.

Since finding a house through a Section 8 housing subsidy in April 2004, Cheryl and Kyla have become vocal advocates of homelessness awareness.

“People who have been homeless and been through the shelter system are some of the strongest people I’ve met,” Cheryl said. “They’ve dealt with the hardest blows that life can give you and survived it and got on top of the situation.”

“Homelessness also has a very devastating effect on kids,” she added, “because kids don’t always understand what’s going on around them and they also feel like it’s somehow their fault.”

Looking slightly nervous and wearing a turquoise dress that sparkled under the stage lights, Kyla settled into the second verse of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” her smooth, confident voice blending with Frangoulis’ and invoking cheers of approval from the crowd.

The crowd roared again when, on behalf of the Horatio Alger Association, Frangoulis presented Kyla with a $20,000 scholarship, to be used for tuition when the 12-year-old eventually enters college.

The announcement “blew me away,” Cheryl Middleton said. “It wasn’t anything I expected — it was just a big surprise and I was really thrilled.”

She paused and added, “I wish sometimes that my daughter could see, like the ghost of Christmas past, present and future, and see what her life will be like … I see such a bright future for her.”

Tachauna and Royelle, who both agreed that Kyla’s performance was the best part of their evening, said they were surprised to hear that the Middletons had been homeless.

“She looked like she had money, because of her clothes,” Tachauna said, adding that her previous perception of a homeless person had been of “someone dirty, downtown.”

Grammy-nominated musician Mighty Sam McClain, who has also been homeless at various points in his life, opened his set with a heartfelt take on “Amazing Grace” before bringing in a trombone, trumpet and tenor saxophone to blast the crowd with funked-up rhythms that had the Middleton brothers — Darion, 11, and Mesani, 5 — grooving in front of the stage.

It was well after 11 p.m. by the time that Natalie Merchant took to the stage with an apology: “I have laryngitis … I sound like a frog.”

Soldiering on, Merchant crooned her way through “Build a Levee,” with backup vocals from Cheryl Middleton. Kyla joined in for the chorus of “Kind and Generous,” and velvet-voiced teenager Nichole Cooper led the group through “There is No Good Reason,” a track she wrote and Merchant performed on the Give US Your Poor CD.

Merchant said that the song, which describes Cooper’s experiences as a homeless 15-year-old moving in and out of shelters, features heartbreaking lyrics reflecting genuine desperation: “We need money bad and I couldn’t find a job, so I went around looking for someone to rob.”

Following Merchant’s collaborative set, all of the evening’s performers gathered onstage to send the audience off with an impromptu rendition of “Lean On Me.”

As the crowd filed out of the theater into the windy night, they passed a stack of boxes in the mirrored lobby. Employees and volunteers from Lexington software company Ipswitch had spent the evening collecting clothing donations and the boxes overflowed.

The haul was more Baby Gap than Salvation Army: pristine packages of children’s socks, pajamas and underwear were bundled into plastic bags, awaiting delivery to Cradles to Crayons, a charity that serves low income and homeless children.

It was the last of the evening’s many reminders that, as Kyla noted somberly, “homelessness can happen to anyone.”