Last week, House the Homeless remembered the good work Robin Williams did on behalf of people experiencing homelessness, but forgot to mention the outstanding gesture he made some years ago, described here by journalist Dustin Volz:
In a stunning moment of candor, Williams testified before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee in 1990 in support of the Homelessness Prevention and Community Revitalization Act, which sought to direct funding to housing-based support centers for the chronically homeless and to boost mental-health services. (A related bill became law later that year.)
Williams is of course not the first celebrity to leverage fame and name recognition into promotion of societal change for the better. This summer, film star Susan Sarandon told lawmakers at a congressional briefing that people experiencing homelessness need to be included as a protected class, as defined by the Hate Crimes Statistics Act.
But often the venue for publicizing a good cause is less formal than the legislative halls of Washington, D.C. Every Christmas, celebrities come out to serve dinner to thousands at the Los Angeles Mission. Last Christmas, hip-hop stars YG and Snoop Dogg financed a $10,000 shopping spree for 60 L.A. shelter kids, and actor Charlie Sheen donated $50,000 to My Friend’s Place, a center in Hollywood that serves homeless youth. Vocalist Cyndi Lauper holds an annual holiday benefit concert to raise money for her True Colors foundation, which helps homeless LGBT youth.
The extremely popular TV series Breaking Bad, which was made in Albuquerque, N.M., gave many of the show’s wardrobe items to be sold at local thrift stores that support the homeless shelter. Because they are not just used clothes but entertainment-industry memorabilia, the donated items fetched good prices. Back in May, wildman comedian Russell Brand shocked some Beverly Hills neighbors by letting homeless friends stay in his multimillion-dollar house while he was out of the country.
But consciousness of social inequity is not recent. In this video clip from San Antonio 20 years ago, country music legend Townes Van Zandt performs “Marie,” his song about a homeless couple.
In A Deeper Blue, biographer Robert Earl Hardy said of the singer:
Townes had exhibited concern for the poor and homeless since his childhood, and he still made it a habit to give money — often his entire earnings from gigs — to street people.
The Los Angeles Times published a fascinating story by Rene Lynch, who interviewed the winner of the popular televised culinary competition Chopped. The subject, D. Brandon Walker, administers and teaches in a culinary training program for the St. Joseph Center, the venerable helping institution in Venice, Calif. He also fills the post of executive chef, cooking for the Bread and Roses Cafe, which serves meals to people experiencing homelessness. The students get a chance to practice there too. And Walker likes the idea that even people who are broke can have a luxurious dining experience.
Here is the really interesting part. Since the supplies at the Bread and Roses Cafe are donated by food banks and restaurants, the staff never knows what will show up on any given day. They are constantly forced to improvise, creating meals on the fly from whatever is available. It was perfect training for Walker, because the whole format of the TV show Chopped is based on presenting the contestants with a random assortment of ingredients.
So Walker won the competition, and he gives credit to the experience gained from many years of cooking for the indigent people of Venice. The guests and trainees at the St. Joseph Center were very proud of having their very own chef go to New York and win a competition. And Walker says he has the best job in the world. Lynch quotes his inspiring words:
My job is unique in that I am cooking everyday and I’m teaching. We train people who are coming out of all different types of difficulties in their lives…. People who are unemployed or underemployed. Coming out of rehab, or transitional housing, coming out of penal system, or being laid off. We give them the opportunity to learn.
Now, all they need is a Living Wage job!
Source: “What Robin Williams Told the Senate About Homelessness,” NationalJournal.com, 08/12/14
Source: “YG & Snoop Dogg Donate $10,000 To Los Angeles Children,” hiphopdx.com, 12/27/13
Source: “’Breaking Bad’ gives clothes to homeless,” ABQJournal, 02/26/13
Source: “LA chef says serving the homeless helped him win ‘Chopped’,” LATimes.com, 10/27/13
Image by Neon Tommy
The Center for American Progress (CAP) is the co-author, with Maria Shriver, of A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, published earlier this year. One of its subjects is the income gap. The net worth of the average American family is slight. But in the highest 1%, the average family’s net worth is 288 times that much. To put it another way, 288 families could survive on the same amount of money that sustains one family in that lofty 1% bracket.
Not looking good
The book examines the national financial crisis from the viewpoint of American women, and the picture it reveals is dire. Women make up half the workforce. But when primary and co-breadwinners of families are identified, two-thirds of the time, it’s a woman. To put it another way, while occupying half of the jobs, women do considerably more than half of the family-supporting. And of course women, including many mothers of young children, and many who have served our country in the military, are increasingly found among the total number of people experiencing homelessness.
This is by no means Shriver’s first work in the field. In 2009, under CAP auspices, she published “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything.” As president of House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell has long appreciated Shriver’s passion and eloquence. Also, he has discussed in detail the need for a better Federal Minimum Wage formula with Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas’s 35th District, who was responsible for Richard’s being invited to the summit.
In the months leading up to the White House Summit on Working Families, the groups involved reached out to ordinary Americans, asking for their stories and for ideas about what initiatives would be effective in creating a 21st century in which every person working a full-time job can afford rent, utilities, clothing, food, medical insurance, and maybe even send their kid to summer camp. The philosophy is the same simple but powerful idea once articulated by Werner Erhard: “The world doesn’t work unless it works for everyone.”
Working families, American businesses, and the American economy are always linked together throughout the literature describing the summit. To achieve the best possible outcome for all may require some resetting of workplace norms, such as unequal pay for the same work. People need to be able to get jobs, without discrimination or other barriers. They need a living wage and a chance to improve and achieve their full potential.
Several of the issues addressed by the summit are really aspects of one big issue: the fact that workers are complex human beings with loyalties, obligations, and duties outside of the employee role. They are not robots, but people with children to raise and/or elderly parents to care for. Because of those human characteristics, they need workplace flexibility to accommodate unorthodox schedules and emergencies. Sometimes they need paid leave to keep the family or themselves from falling apart. Of course, some conscientious businesses exist, as the CAP website describes:
They know policies that support women and families lead to more productive workers and help business attract and retain their best talent, all while improving their bottom line…. There are concrete steps we can take to give all workers the best chance to succeed at work and at home. These strategies must include making full use of the entire talent pool of workers so that our workplaces are fair, effective, and productive for employers and employees alike.
We can’t wait to see where the inspiration derived from this summit will lead. Meanwhile, please use the “Donate” button over on the right of this page to help defray the $1,051 cost of Richard’s journey to participate in it.
Source: “The White House Summit on Working Families,” WorkingFamiliesSummit.org, undated
Source: “The Shriver Report Executive Summary,” AmericanProgress.org, 01/12/14
Source: “The White House Summit on Working Families,” WorkingFamiliesSummit.org, undated
Source: “The White House Summit on Working Families,” WorkingFamiliesSummit.org, undated
Image by lifescript
The Catching up to 1968 Act of 2012 (H.R. 5901) is a piece of legislation introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. Its object is to raise the federal minimum wage to $10 per hour, an amount that may sound frightening to businesses, but apparently they do manage to adjust. Jackson points out that no job loss has been shown to result from reasonable increases in the minimum wage.
The amount is only one of the bill’s four prongs. The raise would happen immediately, or what passes for immediately in public life, two months after the enactment of the legislation. Then, after a year, the minimum wage would be tied to the Consumer Price Index. And there is a special provision for people like restaurant workers:
For workers earning their living on the basis of tips, the cash wage paid to such an employee is to be 70% of the minimum wage when the law takes effect, but in no case less than $5.50 an hour, adjusted annually as necessary thereafter.
Jackson notes that states and communities can always raise the minimum wage in their area, but it doesn’t happen very often. Ten states, he tells us, have exercised their autonomy by indexing the minimum wage to inflation, so that’s a good sign. And 70% of the American people, according to a recent poll, believe the minimum wage needs to be higher.
On the right-hand side of the Time for a Raise page is an impressive list of representatives who are co-sponsors. The information gives specifics on the position of organizations and public figures whose opinions about the minimum wage are often sought out:
The AFL-CIO, National Council of La Raza, civil rights organizations, Ralph Nader, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and many others have all supported raising it and indexing it. Even Rick Santorum (until recently) and Mitt Romney believed in raising the minimum wage and Mr. Romney wanted to index it to inflation.
For encouraging him to introduce the legislation, Jackson extends special appreciation and thanks to Nader. In his argument for the raising the minimum wage, Jackson (like many others) references the unfairness of the huge gap between compensation for executives and workers. CEOs and all those other “Os” could help a lot by taking voluntary pay cuts.
As House the Homeless blog has often discussed, the Universal Living Wage (ULW), as written up by Richard R. Troxell, shares a similar motivation, although it takes a different approach. The ULW accomplishes the same benefits, and adds more. It doesn’t take a sociology professor or an economist to recognize that the cost of living is different in different places around the United States. To speak of “the economy” is misleading, because we are a nation of at least 1,000 economies. One size does not fit all. Richard says:
Raising the FMW to $10.00 an hour will not get one minimum wage worker off the streets of Washington DC the day it becomes law-far from it. At the same time, $10.00 an hour will seriously hurt small business in rural America.
Harm to small businesses can be reduced by costing them money only in communities where the economy can handle it. Harm can also be reduced by planning for change to take place over a 10-year period. If the increase is eased into, businesses will know what to expect and be able to budget for it. Richard asks:
What’s wrong with spreading out the solution of this problem over 10 years if it took 50 years for it to be created? Especially, if in the end, it solves the Wage Issue Problem for all time and ensures that a person working 40 hours in a week will finally be able to afford basic: food, clothing and shelter, (including utilities) wherever that work is done throughout the United States… Remember, minimum wage jobs are the last bastion of purely American jobs. These jobs and these workers cannot be outsourced. Our workers deserve better and our employers deserve to be respected.
By a not-so-strange coincidence, Ralph Nader has also sat down with Richard to discuss the Universal Living Wage. Back in the day, both men worked for economic justice in the streets of Philadelphia, alongside the esteemed Max Weiner, founder of the Consumer Education and Protective Association (CEPA), and the Consumer Party.
Catching up has been the policy behind the federal minimum wage for far too long. “The Catching up to 1968 Act of 2012” is a cute title — one might say a “catchy” title — but, really, is that the best we can aspire to, going backwards nearly half a century? If we always go less than the distance to the goal of exiting poverty, then how long does it take us to reach that goal? The answer is, we never do. The result is a 10,000,000 people pool of economically enslaved full-time workers who remain vulnerable to the disaster of falling into economic homelessness.
And even in the best case, “catching up” would not bring us back to where we were in that golden past. Jackson noted that the proposed increase “doesn’t fully equal the purchasing power of the minimum wage in 1968 — which today would be closer to $11 per hour.” Even if “catching up” becomes law, the American worker will not be able to buy as many loaves of bread with an hour’s pay as could be bought for an hour’s wages back in 1968.
Please visit to learn more about the Universal Living Wage and the ways in which you can participate to make it a reality.
Everyone likes celebrity news, especially when it’s good, and House the Homeless has previously taken note of wonderful generosity from stars like Bruce Springsteen. We also mentioned Eminem’s patronage and mentorship of a homeless rapper called Yelawolf. The musician and activist known as Reverend Billy Wirtz supports the organization Picture the Homeless, whose motto is “Don’t talk about us, talk with us.”
Last May, it was announced that Lady Gaga would donate $1 million to homeless youth. Cyndi Lauper began the True Colors Fund in 2008, and the result is a shelter with 30 studio apartments specifically for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth who are experiencing homelessness. Some of them anyway, for as the singer is quoted as saying:
In New York City, a very disproportionate number (up to 40 percent) of homeless youth identify as L.G.B.T. Even more disturbing are reports that these young people often face discrimination and at times physical assault in some of the very places they have to for help. This is shocking and inexcusable!
Back in 2006, Jon Bon Jovi started up the JBJ Soul Foundation, which feeds people and puts families into houses, and does a whole bunch of other stuff in several cities. Now the foundation has teamed up with the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies to create Project REACH.
It stands for “Real-time Electronic Access for Caregivers and the Homeless,” and it’s a contest with a financial reward for whoever in the “developer community” can figure out how to make a national platform that can be accessed by the Internet and smartphones. The assignment is to supply complete and current information on shelters, housing services, crisis hotlines, legal assistance, VA services, health clinics, food kitchens, and any other resources, anywhere, anytime.
House the Homeless has often mentioned Austin in relation to its music scene, which has a long and impressive history, and the South by Southwest festival, and a whole lot more going for it. Among other things, the Austin Music Commission was supposedly represented on the Waller Creek Citizen Advisory Committee, but then whatever work that group did was apparently set aside to await the results of an international design competition. The ongoing project will greatly affect what is locally called the Red River music scene, and it will also have a huge impact on the area’s people experiencing homelessness.
Like many other cities, Austin has heard objections to the presence of homeless people downtown because of the trash problem, which in the public mind is inevitably associated with vagrants. But… If Austin is anything like other college towns, a big part of the trash on the streets is contributed by students with an overweening sense of entitlement and not much genuine connection to the city they temporarily inhabit.
Where there are bars and clubs, there is litter, vomit, and urine on the sidewalks and in the neighbors’ azalea bushes. What pulls customers to those clubs is the music. So the blame for urban squalor can’t be solely assigned to the homeless.
In many citizens’ minds, both show business and the homeless are responsible for urban crime. Live music = night life = booze = drunk-rolling = fights = prostitution = stolen cars = hard drugs = police sirens = litter = homeless people. In a downtown area, especially on weekends, they’re all mixed up together. And musicians write songs about the homeless, like “Only a Hobo,” “Tramp and the Young Girl,” and hundreds more. Often, musicians are the homeless, especially in old age — if they make it that far.
Sure, at a certain stage, with the world at your feet, being technically homelessness might be the best career move. If you plan to tour for 10 months, why pay rent for an apartment? The road can also make someone unwittingly callous. A 21-year-old guitarist who sleeps in a band’s tour bus might not understand how the rolling-stone life is not so much fun for a 45-year-old woman veteran with diabetes and PTSD. In many significant ways, musicians are just like everybody else — sometimes uninformed or thoughtless.
The music scene has always been an environment where thinking was a little more enlightened than in the general population. When musicians meet, age, race, creed, economic status, and all those other tiresome barriers are totally irrelevant. Sure, the music subculture has always had its problems, but discrimination generally hasn’t been one of them. That’s how much power the music universe holds, and one of the ways to use power responsibly is by looking after the interests of society’s least fortunate. An outstanding example of this is New Orleans, where in the wake of multiple disasters, the musicians took care of each other and a whole lot of civilians, too.
In Los Angeles, a band called Avenue 52 has a music video project called “Homeless,” whose profits will partly go to local helping organizations. In Berkeley, Ace Backwords, who is himself a homeless musician, organized and produced several compilations showcasing the work of numerous street musicians.
In Denver, David Adebonojo, performing at the 16th Street pedestrian mall, attracted the attention of musician/producer Tyler Ward, who got his career going. In one way, as the son of the Ivy League-educated parents (a doctor and a minister), Adebonojo doesn’t match the homeless stereotype. In another way, he does, with his history of being an auto mechanic, a Deadhead, and an ex-con. After writing a quantity of music in prison, he was released to the streets, where he spent enough years to have half a dozen guitars stolen.
Let’s hope for perfect weather in Springfield, Missouri, on May 12, for the second attempt at raising $10,000 for homeless causes with a concert called “Stomp the Blues Out of the Homeless.” The promoter, Jim Payne, whose day job has something to do with escrow and land titles, tried to launch this idea last year, but the weather was impossibly foul and he ended up losing all the money he had put up to get the thing going. Better luck this time!
Homeless Media Bonus Link
The late comedian Greg Giraldo — “Underwear Goes Inside the Pants” — featuring many of Venice Beach, California’s homeless residents.
Source: “Cyndi Lauper Opens Homeless LGBT Youth Center In NYC,” The New Civil Rights Movement, 08/25/11
Source: “VA Launches “Project REACH” Contest,” VA.gov, 03/19/12
Source: “Los Angeles Based Pop Rock Band Avenue 52 Raises Homeless Awareness,” SFGate.com, 04/12/11
Source: “Denver musician David Adebonojo (Dred Scott) strikes a chord,” DenverPost.com, 08/03/11
Source: “Fresh start desired for blues festival,” News-Leader.com, 05/05/12
Image by bartlec (Chris Bartle), used under its Creative Commons license.
People experiencing homelessness do not always remain adrift. Sometimes they land on a friendly shore. Is it all a matter of luck? Or do their stories contain factors that could be applied more generally? What kind of help was extended to them by nonprofit groups, local businesses, individual benefactors, faith-based organizations, the media, or the government? What kind of help really helps?
Last time, we found that, for veteran Bill Jenkins, the things that made a difference were Alcoholics Anonymous and the nonprofit Veterans First. What helps even more, he told the reporter, is the respect given him by fellow citizens who recognize the contributions he has made to the community.
In the realm of show business, a person’s housing status is less important than whether they make it to the recording studio on time. Of course, it always helps to have a stable residence as a center of operations.
In January, Eminem signed a rapper called Yelawolf, who had been on the streets for about a year, to his record label. Since then, the young musician has been homeless in a whole different way, touring the U.S. and Europe.
Everybody heard about Ted Williams, the widely publicized “Homeless Man with a Golden Voice.” After being “discovered” by a journalist, he was introduced to many opportunities, but was psychologically unable to cope with the sudden changes in his life. This seems to be the theory held by Cord Jefferson, who describes the arc of Williams’s career and reflects,
In the future, it would probably be wise for Americans and the media to remember that people emerging from the depths to which Williams sank need time to recover before they’re thrown in front of cameras and lights and millions of people. Nobody’s saying that it can’t be done, of course, but it shouldn’t be done over night. And when people crash and burn because they weren’t ready for the spotlight, it seems wholly wrong to immediately forget about them.
Vicki Lawrence followed up with a video piece in which she plays a character called “Homeless Mama,” which is seen as either a humorous parody or a mean-spirited attack on the homeless, depending on who you ask.
Country singer Miranda Lambert’s parents were private investigators, a profession which apparently doesn’t pay very well or support a stable domesticity. Journalist Carina Adly MacKenzie titles her article, “Miranda Lambert spent part of childhood homeless bankrupt,” and says,
In fact, her family occasionally sheltered abused women and children at their home. These women inspired one of Lambert’s biggest hits, ‘Gunpowder & Lead.’
In The New Yorker, Dana Goodyear recounted the story of Nathaniel Ayers. This amazingly talented musician suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and went from the Skid Row streets of Los Angeles to being the subject of a book titled The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music. And then his story was made into a movie that starred Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr.
In fact, it appears that what turned things around for Ayers was the interest taken in him by Steve Lopez, who first publicized the story of the homeless musical genius in a series of columns, then published the book. Like the golden-voiced homeless man Ted Williams, Ayers and his story captured the imagination of someone with the skill and the platform to make it public.
The other deciding factor was his membership in the Lamp Community, the Los Angeles nonprofit organization that follows the “housing first” principle. For helping people one at a time, there are not enough reporters to go around. Or enough facilities like Lamp.
The good news is that we don’t need to be newspaper journalists or shelter administrators in order to help this situation. There are plenty of different ways to help, and one of them is to learn about, and spread the word about, the Universal Living Wage.
Source: “Eminem signs homeless rapper,” Musicrooms.net, 01/18/11
Source: “A Month Later, ‘Homeless Man with a Golden Voice’ Is Abandoned by His Corporate Friends,” Good, 02/25/11
Source: “Vicki Lawrence as Homeless Mama,” Youtube.com
Source: “Miranda Lambert spent part of childhood homeless, bankrupt,” Zap2it, 11/04/10
Source: “Dana Goodyear, Letter from Los Angeles,” The New Yorker, 05/05/08
Image by Vincent van der Pas, used under its Creative Commons license.
According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, in September of 2009 (the last date for which statistics have been compiled), 423,773 American children were in foster care. That’s nearly half a million: Not such a large number these days when applied to dollars, but a very large number indeed when it’s children we’re talking about.
Kids in foster care are in an ambiguous situation, not actually homeless (PDF), but not in their own permanent homes, either. For about half of all the foster kids, the stated “case goal” is reunification with their families, a goal much more easily met if their families are lucky enough to have homes.
Although some are placed with relatives, about half of the children in foster care at any given time are with non-relatives. It seems that about half the total number of children remain in foster care for less than a year. Presumably, the family situation improves, and they are able to return.
Of course, a small percentage of kids “age out” of foster care each year, and their circumstances are often dire. Of the system’s graduates, only about half also graduate from high school. Only one in 50 goes on to earn a college degree.
It is estimated that a quarter of the teenagers too old for foster care are now homeless, and a third receive public assistance. Half are unemployed, and more than 4/5ths become parents at an age when they are not equipped for it, and without the means to prevent their children from joining a cycle of poverty, neglect, and even abuse.
Recently, all the members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, all the state governors, and the president received copies of Looking Up at the Bottom Line. An enthusiastic reply came from Michele Bachmann, who represents the 6th congressional district of Minnesota, and hopes to be the next Republican president.
Bachmann’s political activism is said to have originated with her experience as a 23-time foster parent. Sheryl Gay Stolberg explained in The New York Times, saying,
… [I]t was her role as a mother, both to her biological children and to her adolescent foster daughters, that spurred her to seek public office.
The state allowed a family to take care of up to three foster children at a time, and the Bachmanns specialized in teenage girls with eating disorders. The Bachmann biological children were home-schooled or went to private Christian schools, but foster children must attend public schools, and Michele Bachmann became politically active through wanting to influence how the schools are run.
By the late 1990s… Mrs. Bachmann was upset by the education her foster children were getting in public school. Teachers gave them ‘little special attention,’ and many were ‘placed in lower-level classes, as if they were not expected to succeed,’ she told a House subcommittee in 2007.
Benjy Sarlin takes the story a bit further, noting that Bachmann, at the same time,
… [P]itched her own legislation that would allow states to use vouchers to move foster children into private or home schools, injecting a hot-button partisan issue into the mix of what had been a mostly apolitical process.
Kathleen Strottman, executive director of the bi-partisan, nonprofit Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, is extremely appreciative of Bachmann’s advocacy for the organization, saying,
She’s been very helpful in speaking about what drew her to become a foster parent and using that for state and local recruiting efforts.
Although many of Bachmann’s ideas are frightening to those who fear the total disintegration of the social safety net, her sincerity and charisma cannot be doubted.
Source: “Foster Care Statistics 2009” (PDF), ChildWelfare.gov, 05/11
Source: “Roots of Bachmann’s Ambition Began at Home,” The New York Times, 06/21/11
Source: “Michele Bachmann’s Foster Care Contradiction,” TPMDC, 07/06/11
Image by Gage Skidmore, used under its Creative Commons license.