Here’s the thing about heroes in the struggle to end homelessness. They are everywhere. It seems as if more and more people are stepping up to do a little something. And as for long-term committers, people who have devoted their entire lives to helping the homeless, it seems like they are more generously recognized than ever before, thanks to a vigilant press.
The paradox is that for many people who are oriented toward humanitarian service, recognition is at the very bottom of their personal priority list. Here are brief descriptions of just a few of the people who are changing America, one generous deed at a time.
Phoenix, Ariz. – “Formerly homeless salon owner gives back with sleeping bag drive” — the headline says it all. Now in its seventh year, the sleeping bag drive is run by Tad Caldwell on behalf of Central Arizona Shelter Services, which each year serves 10,000 people experiencing homelessness.
Pasco, Fla. – 5th-grader Caileigh Sheldon won a singing contest and a $1000 prize. She and her mom bought duffel bags and survival items to put inside them. Reporter Daylina Miller captured this quotation from Caileigh:
‘There’s a lady always by herself, and she pushes this stroller around all day and is always getting sunburned, so I felt really bad for her. There’s a son and his mom, and the mom has no legs, and the son pushes two wheelchairs around, one full of stuff and the one with his mom in it. I feel really bad for them because they don’t have much, and I feel like I do have stuff — so why not give to others?’
San Bernardino, Calif. — Ana Perez is known as the “Green-Eyed Angel.” She picks up donated items for people experiencing homelessness and drops them off where needed. Once a week, Perez and her friend Christine Vasquez make breakfast burritos to distribute, and they’ve been doing this for five years. She recently won an award that will allow her to set up a mobile shower truck, because this is something her street friends really, really want.
Hoover, Ala. – More than 20 years ago, Ronald Sellers lived in a Birmingham mission. He later became a successful businessman and with his wife (now deceased) started a Christmas giveaway about 10 years ago. In his garage, a volunteer team helps prepare gifts of hats, socks and even toys. Sellers himself makes the rounds, only instead going down chimneys, he goes under bridges to where the recipients are. One of his sayings is, “If we could just change one person’s life, it makes all the difference in the world.”
Palo Alto, Calif. – Recently, House the Homeless honored some of the helpers who died in the past year, but that post didn’t include Gloria Bush, another selfless giver. During her productive years, Bush was a Head Start teacher, hospice volunteer and home-health nursing aide who worked tirelessly on behalf of the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.
Tragically, in her 50s, Bush was struck by a mental illness whose nature caused her to shun her daughter and avoid others who wanted to help. Unable to work, she became a resident of the streets. Food Closet volunteer Martha Shirk relates a small but telling detail of her daily life:
We tried repeatedly to interest her in a variety of shoes that would have provided more protection than the flip flops she wore year-round. A couple of weeks ago, one of her flip flops broke, and she walked around on one bare foot for awhile until some of us brought in new flip flops for her.
The story is well worth close study. The authorities no longer capture people with mental illness and force treatment upon them, and the lack of facilities and resources wouldn’t allow for so much institutionalization anyway. But when people are not competent, their untrammeled freedom poses a threat to themselves and to society in general.
At any rate, Gloria Bush died at age 72, of exposure to cold, in a public park in the extremely wealthy part of the country known as Silicon Valley. One online commenter noted that the area’s well-known philanthropists have been pretty good about doing things for “the young and able, smart and chic” and asked if they could find a way to extend a helping hand to the mentally ill destitute. Another commenter wrote angrily:
What actually killed Ms Bush, aside from California’s choice to cut taxes by closing the state hospital system that sheltered unfortunates like her, is the no-nap bar… Our city government has been installing these on public benches for the past decade to prevent homeless from sleeping lying down on our precious outdoor benches. This bar forced Ms Bush to sleep on the ground, which pulled the warmth from her body far more efficiently than the layer of air under that bench could have.
Dallas – Willie Baronet teaches creative advertising at Southern Methodist University and buys signs from people experiencing homelessness. Kelly Gilliland reported for the campus newspaper:
While driving, if Baronet sees a homeless person on the side of the road, he will offer to buy his or her sign, letting them name their price. In return, he will also replenish them with a blank cardboard slate and a marker to create a new advertisement…. Baronet has videotaped and saved recordings of 70-75 of these interactions…. [T]he more he’s interacted with people and the more signs he’s collected, he has had so many interesting conversations with these people, and heard so many great stories.
Most interesting is the part about Baronet’s own personal reasons for initiating this highly individualistic form of activism.
Source: “Formerly homeless salon owner gives back with sleeping bag drive,” AZFamily.com, 12/06/13
Source: “Pasco 11-year-old spends prize money on homeless ,” TBO.com, 06/15/13
Source: “Ana Perez – Story #24,” 5hourenergy.com, 12/18/13
Source: “Once homeless, now donating and volunteering,” ABC3340.com, 12/23/13
Source: “Deceased homeless woman devoted herself to others’ care,” PaloAltoOnline.com, 12/24/13
Source: “SMU professor turns homeless sign collection into creative project,” SMUDailyCampus, 03/23/13
Image by Kulfoto.com
Last time, House the Homeless paid respect to several people who made life better for people experiencing homelessness, and who passed away recently. Fortunately, many such heroes are still alive and at work among us.
In mid-2012, Ray Castellani served his one millionth sandwich to residents of Skid Row in Los Angeles, under the auspices of the nonprofit group he founded in 1987. For many years, Castellani was tethered to this life mission by empathy cultivated by three aspects of his own earlier years: as a military veteran, a recovering alcoholic and an occasional Skid Row homeless person himself. When the former Marine started to make a good living from painting houses and from the occasional acting job, he was prompted by spiritual convictions to give back.
During the years when the Frontline Foundation operated at its peak, it made and served more than 6,000 meals every month. In 1990, when the group’s truck was stolen, that well-publicized crime brought an outpouring of generosity from the community. In 1995, Castellani was summoned to Washington to receive the President’s Service Award, which is the most significant prize a volunteer can get.
Ups and downs
With the economic recession, donors cut down their giving significantly, and the foundation had to close its Van Nuys facility. But the day was saved by a generous donation from a storage company, so despite financial setbacks (and two heart attacks), Castellani continued to deliver as much food as he could, as often as he could, to the inhabitants of L.A.’s scruffiest district.
As recently as March of 2013, he was still active at age 80, and friends organized a celebrity golf tournament to raise money for Frontline Foundation. The photo depicts one of the birthdays he celebrated, with a little help from his friends, on Skid Row. Daily News writer Susan Abram describes another occasion when the longtime activist was interviewed:
On a recent day at his home, Castellani said he was awaiting a volunteer to bring him some ingredients for the sandwiches, likely hundreds of them, he’ll serve on Skid Row today. He’ll have tuna fish, peanut butter, and egg salad sandwiches, along with some chips and candies. He likes to give the homeless a choice, he said, because they have so few.
In Dallas, David “the SoupMan” Timothy has been serving the homeless for ten years. An interview with KERA News reporters Courtney Collins and Rick Holter revealed that Timothy’s own childhood was blighted by food insecurity. He pointed out that hunger is hard enough to deal with, but the really painful part is when a person doesn’t know when or if there will ever be anything to eat again.
Normally the SoupMobile sets up near a city park, but on Christmas Eve, Timothy hosts a gala at a downtown hotel. For this special occasion, as many as 2,500 volunteers help out with an event that creates a special holiday for 500 people experiencing homelessness. There is a huge banquet, with gifts of new clothes and other necessities, and the guests stay overnight so that “when they wake up on Christmas morning, it’s in a warm, safe bed.” Of course this haven is only temporary, but the following week Timothy and the SoupMobile are back on the streets again along with the disenfranchised poor. He told the news team:
Every day when we feed the homeless, not just feeding their stomachs, but we feel like in a very powerful way that we’re feeding their souls with some hope and some caring and some love and compassion. And we just think that makes a real long-lasting difference.
Tomy Bewick, a man with a reputation as one of Toronto’s best slam poets, demonstrates that Canadians also have compassion. Several years ago he established an annual grassroots initiative called Straight to the Streets, which collects winter clothing for distribution to people experiencing homelessness. Workers also buy or put together “survival kits” containing socks, gloves, scarves, hygiene products, water bottles and other useful items. Writer KJ Mullins makes an interesting point about the event:
Giving to others may seem like the main focus of Straight to the Streets but it’s not. It’s taking the time to interact with another person. For many of the volunteers it was the first time that they had a true respectful conversation with someone living on the streets. Those conversations help to change lives. The lives changed are those of the volunteers who finish the day wanting to do more.
Straight to the Streets shows that one man’s decision to make a difference does just that… Once a person can see that they, a single person, can make a difference in the world they want to continue helping others. It’s a never ending circle of good.
Source: “Ray Castellani serves up his one millionth sandwich to homeless,” DailyNews.com, 05/12/12
Source: “The SoupMan On Making Christmas Bright For 500 Homeless Men, Women and Children,” KERANews.org, 12/24/13
Source: “Op-Ed: One man’s vision — Straight to the homeless of Toronto,” DigitalJournal.com, 12/16/12
Image by Frontline Foundation
At this time of year we hear about memorials being held in more than 150 American cities for the people experiencing homelessness who died during the year. Equally sad is the loss of people who spent their lives helping. For the first person mentioned here, it’s necessary to go back a little farther to the fall of the previous year when a humble nun from the Daughters of Charity died in Albany, N.Y., at the age of 84. She was Sister Mary Rose McGeady, former president of Covenant House.
The organization’s current president and CEO, Kevin M. Ryan, took on the task of writing about his predecessor, calling her “our greatest leader and champion.” At the age of 19, she had started her career by working in a home for destitute and abandoned children. In 1990, her Covenant House assignment began with the difficult task of restoring the reputation and efficacy of an organization disgraced by inept management.
Sister Mary Rose spent 13 years as Covenant House president, starting new programs and persuading powerful secular leaders to see things her way, to the point where six countries served lost young people through crisis centers, outreach programs and long-term residences. By the time she died, Covenant House was affecting the lives of 57,000 children per year.
Ryan describes how Sister Mary Rose’s deathbed was surrounded by pictures of the kids she had helped, as well as letters from them. Ryan says:
She was the Mother Teresa of street children, a Holy tornado of determination and compassion. She lived and died every day with the successes and failures of our kids … and she saw God in the tired faces of beautiful, forgotten kids.
Because she was so good at dispensing love and respect, personally and through the charity she ran, thousands of children were able to thrive, and to learn what for many were extremely difficult skills — how to trust, how to accept care and kindness, how to respect and value themselves…. There can be no greater legacy of love.
January of 2013 was brutal, with news of the deaths of two major figures published on the same day, and then a third only two days later.
Carol Walter, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, died at the age of 53. Described as relentless, fearless, unwavering and “one of a kind,” she always stayed focused on the importance of getting people housed as soon as possible. Since her teen years, when she insisted on attending an alternative high school that gave her activism more scope, Walter had been tuned in to the rights of minority groups. After college she worked in New York City and acquired a crack cocaine habit, and then dealt with it by attending a rehab program. Anne M. Hamilton, writing for The Courant, says:
Back in Connecticut, Walter lived in a halfway house for a while, and worked at Columbus House in New Haven, then as associate executive director at the Shelter for the Homeless in Stamford. She became director of the Stewart B. McKinney Shelter in Hartford, where she dealt with the myriad of problems that cause and perpetuate homelessness.
Needless to say, the background of personal experience was of great value to Carol Walter’s interactions with street people. Professor Dennis Culhane wrote of her, “She was certainly one of the most effective and creative advocates in this country, whose loss will be felt for many years to come.”
In Port Orange, Fla., Sue Benton died at 67 after a long career of teaching Sunday School and collecting from fellow parishioners the items needed by people experiencing homelessness. The First United Methodist Church has a cold-weather shelter called Room at the Inn, where Benton made sure guests got more than rest and food. She began modestly by suggesting that parishioners bring back bars of soap and bottles of shampoo from hotels where they stayed on vacation. Eventually the collection of toiletries and hygiene items was so successful that a Daytona Beach shelter could also be supplied.
Another sad loss was the death of Ann Marie Tarinelli, the Connecticut woman who spent many years caring for people experiencing homelessness. She started a nonprofit foundation, recruited other volunteers, and collected clothing and other items that strangers would leave in bins outside her home. Food was the big donation item, and Ms. Tarinelli made home-cooked meals, then traveled on Sundays to parts of Bridgeport where the young and healthy feared to venture, and fed hundreds of hungry people. The cook, who lived to be 75, was especially known for her Thanksgiving dinners.
In March, we lost Dr. Daniel H. Dietrich, who was named Physician of the Year by the Nebraska Medical Association a dozen years ago. In 1988 he helped found a mobile medical clinic, an 18-foot motor home called the Hopemobile that served the disadvantaged and homeless people of the Omaha area. Dr. Dietrich’s area of expertise was in recruiting other health care professionals as volunteers.
Earlier this month, a memorial was held in Boulder, Colo., to remember not only the 15 homeless people who died there in the past year, but three activists who provided support and service — Rev. Deacon Donald Burt, Dr. Peg Rider and Bruce A. Enstad. Such events, expressing a community’s love for people who serve others, are beautiful and meaningful. But we look forward to the day when they are no longer even necessary.
Source: “Homeless Kids Lose a Mighty Advocate,” HuffingtonPost.com, 10/16/12
Source: “Carol Walter: A Relentless Advocate For Poor, Homeless In Connecticut ,” Courant.com, 01/14/13
Source: “Sue Benton had a passion for children, homeless,” News-JournalOnline.com, 01/14/13
Source: “Trumbull woman who fed the homeless dies,” CTPost.com, 01/16/13
Source: “Dr Daniel H. Dietrich,” FindaGrave.com, 03/30/13
Source: “Ceremony to mark Boulder County’s 2013 homeless deaths,” DailyCamera.com, 12/20/13
Image by Bill McChesney
The capital of Texas is such a happening place, and exemplary in so many ways, and of course the home of House the Homeless. Though the organization’s concerns are national in scope, it’s only natural for this blog to concentrate on Austin now and then, and not everything would fit in last week’s edition. In fact it won’t all fit here either, but what a year it’s been! 2013 started out with the traditional HtH Thermal Underwear Drive, which reminds us that another one is underway!
The South by Southwest festival is huge in Austin, and in 2012 a marketing ploy involving homeless people stirred up a lot of controversy. An ad agency hired people from ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless) to walk around and sell access to mobile wifi hotspots. According to a spokesperson from Front Steps, the group which currently administers ARCH, 11 of the 13 participants are now housed.
What SXSW offered homeless workers in 2013 was the expansion of a small but ambitious program from one ice cream vending cart last year to four vending carts this year. Mark Horvath reported:
Today I was invited to a training and started to talk to a few of the homeless vendors. To my surprise, they are not living in a shelter. All of them are sleeping outside. To me, that makes this program even so much cooler. See, often opportunities like this go to sheltered homeless. Providing a social enterprise for street homeless people takes a lot of trust on everyone’s part. That trust alone may be better at restoring a life than the money these vending carts will generate.
The spring saw a return of Austin’s Public Order initiative, whose stated object is to curb violent crime in the downtown area using the services of undercover police officers. When interviewed by Fox News, House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell said:
It’s clearly a coincidence, but it’s a coincidence that keeps occurring every time we have another event, whether it’s South by Southwest or we have Formula 1 or whatever…. It’s ludicrous to even suggest that there’s even a connection between public solicitation and violent crime.
The Austin police have been breaking up an average of two temporary settlements per week in the Barton Creek Greenbelt, cheered on by headlines such as “Homeless Camps Lurking in Austin Parks” (from KEYETV) and promising, “One camp at a time, APD will continue to keep the parks safe making sure your hike is just that.”
In September, upwards of 400 homeless advocates gathered in Austin for the Texas Conference on Ending Homelessness. In conjunction with the event, Pat LaMarche wrote about an interesting organization called Art from the Streets, through which homeless artists have been selling artwork for 20 years. Here is an interesting side note on how obstacles are constantly erected on the path to getting everybody housed:
HUD regulations changed this year. They now require that agencies prove their clients don’t have anywhere to live. Luckily, Art on the Streets doesn’t receive HUD funding and the participating artists don’t have to jump the often out of reach administrative hoop of proving a negative in order to participate.
The group Mobile Loaves and Fishes is in the process of creating what one local business owner called “the very first ‘yes, in my backyard’ project!” although, being 10 miles outside Austin, it’s technically in Webberville’s backyard. At any rate, the backyard “sits on a 27-acre master-planned community and will provide affordable, sustainable housing for approximately 200 chronically homeless disabled people in Central Texas.”
The plan is for a gated community made up of tiny storybook houses and tents and mobile homes, each with a garden around it. There will also be a community garden, a medical facility, an interfaith chapel, an outdoor movie theater and a woodworking shop. The residents will pay low rent from their disability benefits, and House the Homeless is poised to help them through the red tape of the system. Meanwhile both agencies, and others, are concerned with helping homeless Austinites through yet another unexpectedly cold winter.
In March, Richard R. Troxell announced an ambitious project. Andrea Ball wrote:
Troxell, 62, is crafting a piece he calls “The Homecoming,” a life-sized statue depicting a scene between a homeless Vietnam veteran, his young daughter and a “bag lady,” as Troxell calls her. The idea, he said, is to present an emotional snapshot of life on the streets. Ultimately, he’d like to see the work displayed somewhere in Austin…. It will take a lot of money to make the project happen, probably $200,000, Troxell said. He hopes to raise the cash through donations and sales of 12-inch replicas of the sculpture.
If realized, the sculpture will take up a 17-by-8-foot space in the park near the Lady Bird Hike and Bike Trail, where the Homeless Memorial service is held each autumn. In the ensuing months, there was controversy. Ed Morrissey wrote:
Art, however, has a lasting impact and message, one that might well provoke enough attention and concern to prompt more public but hopefully private efforts to reduce homelessness and poverty for a much longer time. That is why art and culture matters, why it is … upstream of politics, and why engagement with it is crucial for public policy and development. If Austin has the cash to do this without soaking taxpayers or shorting services (which is a big if), it’s not an irrational option.
Sculptor Timothy P. Schmalz has taken an interest in the project and believes it can be completed for around half the original estimate, or about $100,000. In November, Schmalz visited Rome, where he presented to Pope Francis his sculpture depicting Jesus as a figure asleep on a park bench.
Two weeks ago, Pope Francis blessed another statue by Schmalz at about the same time Schmalz and Richard signed a contract to sculpt Troxell’s statue of homelessness. And one last thing: the Pope was named Time‘s Man of the Year in part for his efforts to shape thinking about the world’s poor.
Source: “Homeless Who Participated in SXSW Wi-Fi Stunt Now Have Housing ,” ABCNews.go.com, 03/13/13
Source: “At SXSW Helping Homeless People Is Delicious With Street Treats,” HuffingtonPost,com, 03/10/13
Source: “Is APD’s initiative targeting crime or the homeless?,” MyFoxAustin.com, 03/04/13
Source: “Homeless Advocates Cooperating: It’s an Art Form,” HuffingtonPost,com, 09/27/13
Source: “Homeless To Be Housed In Tiny House Village In Austin,” Samuel-Warde.com, 11/20/13
Source: “Homelessness memorialized: Advocate making statue to depict life …,” Statesman.com, 03/02/13
Source: “Should Austin spend $175K on statue honoring homeless … or on the homeless?,” Hotair.com, 08/29/13
Source: “’Homeless Jesus’ sculpture presented to Pope Francis,” News.va, 11.20/13
Image by Woody Hibbard
House the Homeless is a powerful presence in Austin, Texas. The nonprofit organization and its president, Richard R. Troxell, are constantly at the forefront of the effort to help everyone have a good and productive life. Richard holds the invincible belief that America could end homelessness within its borders, and the only thing standing in the way is the lack of political will to do so.
As always, at the top of the list is the need for a living wage indexed to the local cost of housing, one that covers (at very least) the necessities of shelter, food and clothing. He is convinced of the necessity to change two federal standards, the minimum wage and Supplemental Security Income — which means businesses taking care of the people who work, and SSI taking care of people who can’t work.
On the local level, plenty of progress could be made right now by adopting the policy of “Discharge No One into Homelessness,” which would apply to every institution — the military, hospitals, the foster care system, the prison system and so on — and ensure that no one leaving any of those places would be ejected into the streets.
House the Homeless released the report entitled “Prevent Homelessness at Its Core: 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, Restore Human Dignity and Save Business and Taxpayers $ Millions!” This White Paper was sent to the President and First Lady, all the members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and many governors, Cabinet members and other influential people.
Additionally, when funding is acquired, the plan is to send it to every mayor in the country. They are the ones responsible for building shelters in their towns, and making laws that apply to people experiencing homelessness. They are the ones who have to deal with their local hospital emergency rooms being filled with homeless people who have no health care alternative. Hopefully, individual mayors will petition the Conference of Mayors to do something, and the Conference of Mayors will petition Congress for relief in the cities. If only 14 mayors (just 1% of their number) would speak up, that would make a significant difference.
Richard has been a staunch voice every time a journalist needs perspective on such things as an apparent hate crime or a renewed effort by the city to make the lives of homeless people more miserable. Recently, he wrote:
Our nation is relying on an all-volunteer military to protect the people of this nation and maintain the stability of the entire planet. We have failed to protect the protectors. In so doing, we have disgraced our nation and failed our Veterans who have selflessly sacrificed everything to ensure our freedom. House the Homeless calls for a full scale Congressional investigation into all allegations of mismanagement, abuse and neglect. The entire VA Disability program needs to be investigated by the United States Attorney General and placed in Special Receivership.
Strong words! Why would he say that? Among other things, remember the gigantic backlog in processing all veterans’ disability claims? If not, please review “Homelessness and the Disabled American Veterans Agenda.” Recently, we looked at the situation in Austin, thanks in part to the journalistic enterprise of Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman, which resulted in Bell County hiring a veterans services officer decades after the law required it. Why did it take a national scandal to implement this?
Image by Señor Codo
What Higher Minimum Wage Does for Workers and the Economy
Honest economists such as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke have haltingly told the truth on the question of whether raising the minimum wage adversely affects the employment rate: “My response is that I think it doesn’t lower employment.”
Additionally, study after study has shown that 98% or more of all minimum wage increases have been directly spent back into the local economy, thus acting as a local economic stimulant.
Unfortunately, the “Fair” Minimum Wage Act falls short, would hurt small businesses in rural America, and maintains a repressive wage system that would keep workers in a state of poverty throughout our nation.
First of all, how long would it take a worker to climb out of poverty if every step he or she took was less than the distance to reach that poverty goal line? The answer is FOREVER. They would never get there. That has been the Congressional response to minimum wage worker needs for decades. The mantra has been, “Well something is better than nothing.” Clearly, that is not true if our path to escape poverty is forever blocked.
The failure of the Federal Minimum Wage (FMW) has manifested itself as 3.5 million workers falling out of work and into homelessness every year for the last 20 years. The single most costly item in the budget of every American is housing. That is why the Universal Living Wage campaign, since 1997, has chosen to index the FMW to the local cost of housing across America.
Unfortunately, the “Fair” Minimum Wage Act fails to to recognize that we are a nation of 1000+ separate economies. Everyone else knows the cost to live in Washington, D.C., is different from living in Harlingen, Texas, or Fort Lauderdale, Florida, or Santa Cruz, California. ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL! Let’s imagine the “Fair” Minimum Wage Act becomes law and the national standard becomes $10.10 per hour. This will not get one homeless minimum-wage worker off the streets of Washington, D.C.! At the same time, this will hurt small businesses in rural Fargo, North Dakota, and Cumberland, Maryland, and Erie, Pennsylvania.
By using the formula of the Universal Living Wage — using existing government guidelines to index the FMW to the local cost of housing — we ensure that a person working 40 hours in a week (be it from one job or more) will be able to afford basic food, clothing, shelter (including utilities), public transportation and access to a hospital emergency room.
Richard R. Troxell
Consult Looking Up at the Bottom Line…The Struggle for the Living Wage for supportive documentation.
Image by Lynn Friedman
In many ways and places, our veterans are being abused, while the public is bamboozled by the old magician’s trick of misdirection. When a major event is scheduled, an entire municipality might play “hide the homeless.” On an individual level, the media get all in a tizzy over whether one homeless New Yorker had boots or didn’t have boots before a police officer gave him some.
The latest cultural hiccup is a video made just in time for Veterans Day, in which homeless Army vet Jim Wolf gets a shave and a haircut. And a dye job. Also, he wears a suit. “Now he looks like someone on the cover of GQ,” filmmaker Rob Bliss told ABC News, and went on to say:
It’s more than just a haircut and clothing. To see yourself look like that is to see that potential. There are things inside implied by the way you look outside — stability and peace of mind.
Really? Males on active duty in the U.S. military are closely trimmed and clean-shaven. Do they all possess stability and peace of mind? If so, why do we hear so much about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? The video is based on the assumption that barbering is a panacea. If this were so, all of the thousands of homeless men who have been given complimentary shaves and haircuts by volunteers would be prosperous citizens by now.
The makeover video racked up 15 million YouTube views and inspired dozens of blog posts full of oohs and aahs. At the end of the slickly produced vignette, two screens of text explain that Wolf has taken control of his life and “is now scheduled to have his own housing and is attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for the first time ever.”
Smoke and Mirrors
As it turns out, “scheduled to have his own housing” was word waffling. When the video was made, Wolf had applied for veteran housing. How long that takes, and what a person does during the wait, is anybody’s guess. Meanwhile, the video raised $30,000 for Degage Ministries. And then a bad thing happened. BarstoolSports.com has its finger on the pulse of America, so let their headline tell the story and their writer Jmac sum it up:
“Dude From That Super Viral Homeless Makeover Video Got Arrested For Causing A Disturbance At Burger King”
Neat idea for sure, but this is the real world, folks. A new suit and haircut doesn’t guarantee that a dude is all of a sudden gonna turn his life around. This seems to happen a lot with stories like this. People only wanna discuss the happy theatrics of the whole thing, but they tend to ignore the facts.
For CNN News, Dorrine Mendoza interviewed Jim Wolf’s sister. Robin Thomas has hoped for many years that her brother would eventually exit the cycle of “depression, alcoholism, unresolved grief and chronic homelessness” in which he has been caught. Mendoza writes:
No one disputes Wolf has been arrested dozens and dozens of times, mostly for misdemeanors such as public intoxication. Thomas says her brother “lives in survival mode”…. She also admits that perhaps the video did not give Wolf the “glimpse into the future” that others had hoped. He did not view it as a life-changing event, Thomas says.
Though Degage Ministries put Jim Wolf and Rob Bliss in touch with each other, it’s not clear whether the film was originally conceptualized by the organization or the filmmaker. Someone made a bad decision when picking the person to be “made over.” Everybody is different, but whatever this particular fellow needs, it isn’t a shower of publicity. Jim Wolf might be a great candidate for a Housing First program — with zero fanfare — but he definitely was not ready for this failed experiment in superficial making-over.
Into the Wayback Machine
Another premise on which this project rests is a throwback to the 1960s, when acrimonious hair-length discussions between fathers and sons obscured the serious issues that activists sought to expose and repair. Is that what is happening here? Before Jim Wolf was arrested, Philip J. Reed — contravening popular opinion — wrote a piece titled, “Why I Hate This ‘Homeless Veteran Makeover’ Video, and Why You Should Too.” He calls it absurd, manipulative, offensive, exploitative, embarrassing and demeaning. Reed says:
What, exactly, is meant to be inspiring about this again? It’s the hollowest possible kind of “inspiration,” and it’s one that only works because it withholds the humanity…. But you shouldn’t feel inspired by anything that takes a serious, profound problem with the very core of the society in which you live, and presents it as trivial and easily overcome.
Wolf has a problem. That problem is the country he lives in. That problem is that country’s approach to dealing with the sick and the poor and the unemployed and the homeless. That problem is emphatically not going to be solved by a haircut, a shave, and a necktie. And yet this makeover video wants you to come away feeling that it is solved that way. Because that’s easy. That’s visual. And, what’s more, it’s easy on the eye.
This constant whitewashing of our problems is the problem.
Source: “Homeless Vet’s Makeover Turns His Life Around,” ABCNews.go.com, 11/08/13
Source: “Dude From That Super Viral Homeless Makeover Video Got Arrested For Causing A Disturbance At Burger King,” BarstoolSports.com, 11/21/13
Source: “Homeless vet in makeover video has long road ahead,” CNN.com, 11/19/13
Source: “Why I Hate This “Homeless Veteran Makeover” Video, and Why You Should Too,” NoiselessChatter.com, 11/09/13
Image by Rob Bliss
Austin’s annual Homeless Memorial Sunrise Service is coming up on the 17th at 6:57 a.m. It will be held at Auditorium Shores, at South First and Riverside Drive (on the south side of Lady Bird Lake). For people anywhere in the area, that’s the important thing to know, so it’s right here at the top. The custom is for someone to read the names of all the homeless people who died in Austin in the past year. Last year 156 names were read.
Other cities with hearts hold similar events, of course, and there are poverty-related deaths in every large city. People who live on the streets, in makeshift camps and even in official shelters are vulnerable in so many ways. Malnutrition is almost a certainty, and starvation a possibility. Lack of food is considered the least newsworthy cause of death and suffering on the streets, with violent deaths and assaults attracting far more attention. For instance, Young Lee, co-founder of the Pinkberry frozen yogurt company, could be sentenced to as many as seven years for brutally beating a homeless man with a tire iron in Los Angeles. Allegedly, Lee also tried to intimidate witnesses. Depending on who tells the story, there may have been provocation, but the violence was certainly not unavoidable.
A recent headline reads, “It Is Illegal To Feed The Homeless In Cities All Over The United States.” What happened in Raleigh, N.C., this August when members of the Love Wins organization attempted to continue their years-long practice of bringing breakfast sandwiches and coffee to hungry people? An uncredited author relates the story:
On that morning three officers from Raleigh Police Department prevented us from doing our work, for the first time ever. An officer said, quite bluntly, that if we attempted to distribute food, we would be arrested.
Our partnering church brought 100 sausage biscuits and large amounts of coffee. We asked the officers for permission to disperse the biscuits to the over 70 people who had lined up, waiting to eat. They said no. I had to face those who were waiting and tell them that I could not feed them, or I would be arrested.
In Denver, a charming law “makes it illegal for anyone to sleep or sit and cover themselves against the elements with anything except their clothing.” The presence of a blanket turns the offense into unauthorized camping, punishable by a fine or up to a year in jail. Flagstaff, Ariz., made news when an undercover police officer with nothing better to do than harass the homeless arrested a 77-year-old woman who asked for bus money. As the Love Wins writer points out, more than 50 large cities in America now have anti-camping and/or anti-food sharing laws.
Sometimes the goal appears to be to get the homeless people to go away. Apparently the heartless politicians that are passing these laws believe that if the homeless can’t get any more free food and if they keep getting thrown into prison for “illegal camping” they will eventually decide to go somewhere else where they won’t be hassled so much.
In Boise, Idaho, the American Civil Liberties Union is engaged in a federal lawsuit, “arguing that the city’s recently-passed anti-panhandling ordinance was in violation of the First Amendment…” While the the mayor’s office characterizes the law as “carefully crafted to prevent aggressive solicitation while still ensuring the protection of all citizens’ right to free speech,” ACLU board member Erika Birch disagrees:
The ordinance criminalizes certain speech and expression and specifically restricts words that a person can use in the City of Boise, particularly in the downtown core area. It goes too far and violates constitutionally [protected] speech.
The venerable organization has also succeeded in having Michigan’s anti-begging law, which has been in place for 85 years, declared unconstitutional. TakePart.com adds:
Just this year, the ACLU sued on behalf of homeless men and women opposing begging bans in Indianapolis, Indiana and Worcester, Massachusetts, among other cities, also as violations of free speech and peacefully soliciting money in public. The ACLU of Colorado sued the city of Colorado Springs last November, and an injunction was granted to stop their downtown panhandling ban until it was repealed in March.
The city council of Columbia, S.C., got off on the wrong foot earlier this fall by unanimously voting that people experiencing homelessness should be collected and sequestered in a 240-bed camp outside of town. They would be unable to leave without permission, and the place didn’t even have cooking facilities when this ambitious plan was set to begin. If they didn’t want to go there, the alternative would be jail. But even the police, who would be responsible for the rounding up and guarding, backed away from implementation. The interim police chief, Ruben Santiago, stated:
Homelessness is not a crime. We can’t just take people to somewhere they don’t want to go. I can’t do that. I won’t do that.
So the new plan is to give people a van ride to the shelter and let them stay as long as a week, voluntarily, while workers try to sort out how they can best be helped. The city also promises to install public restrooms and trash cans, and to institute a homeless court.
Bonus Homeless Death Trivia
Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, writing for Gizmodo, reported on a place whose existence is little known: a tiny island in New York City called Hart Island, “the largest publicly funded cemetery in the world.” In this modern-day potter’s field, there is one deceased person for every eight currently living New Yorkers. Their number is pretty darn close to a million, and a lot of them died homeless.
Currently run by the Department of Corrections, the mass graveyard is closed to the public and infamous for lousy record-keeping. If you were wondering whether prisoners bury the dead, the answer is yes. They do the final honors, presumably with the awareness that they will likely end up in this very same mass grave. A criminal record is practically a guarantee of lifelong unemployment. Furthermore, even working stiffs can’t afford places to live. A lot of both kinds of people end up homeless, so you do the math.
As a warning, the grim assignment is ineffective. No matter how sincerely a prisoner might intend to change his ways, the topography of society rarely permits a new start down a different path. Everyone chosen for this work detail has an excellent chance of winding up at the other end of a Hart Island shovel.
Source: “Pinkberry Co-Founder Convicted of Beating Homeless Man With Tire Iron,” Gawker.com, 11/08/13
Source: “It Is Illegal To Feed The Homeless In Cities All Over The United States,” JewsNews.co.il, 11/08/13
Source: “Urban Camping Ticket Issued to Woman for Trying to Stay Warm,” denverhomelessoutloud.org, 11/02/13
Source: “ACLU Sues City of Boise Over Anti-Panhandling Ordinance,” BoiseWeekly.com, 11/04/13
Source: “The Crime of Poverty: Some Homeless People Face Arrest for Asking for Help,” TakePart.com, 10/09/13
Source: “Columbia, South Carolina Rescinds Decision To Criminalize Homelessness,” HuffingtonPost.com, 09/09/13
Source: “What We Found at Hart Island, The Largest Mass Grave Site In the U.S.,” Gizmodo.com, 11/07/13
Image by David Trawin