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
Songwriters Lou and Peter Berryman wrote a song in 2004 whose message is, unfortunately, still spot-on today. The lyrics suggest an astonishing number of ways to become homeless, and really the best idea would be to go to this page and marvel over the whole list. (It’s the first item in the “Comments” section.)
But here’s a sample:
One runaway truck, one slip in the muck
One stretch of bad luck: Homelessness
One family feud, one litigious old prude
One long bad mood: Homelessness
One toaster too hot, one investment that’s not
One tiny blood clot: Homelessness
Earlier this month, Mark and Sharon Ames and their three daughters moved from a cramped apartment into a rental house they had found via Craigslist, in a community near Los Angeles. They paid the $2,000 move-in stake and signed a lease. Then, wrote Kennedy Ryan of KTLA5:
On Wednesday, a woman identifying herself as the real property manager showed up at the home with a police officer and told them they had to leave immediately because they were trespassing.
The officer gave the Ames family less than an hour to vacate and stood over them while they gathered their possessions. They signed into a motel, and KTLA5 kindly published their electronic contact information in case anyone was inspired to help.
Eleanor Goldberg of The Huffington Post picked up the story and added even more disheartening details. The real landlord gratuitously had the family’s van towed, and as anyone who has ever gone through the hassle and expense of reclaiming a vehicle from the California police knows, that alone can ruin your entire month.
The scam artist found the Ames couple easy to fleece, because they both face extra challenges in dealing with life. Mark is an amputee with a prosthetic leg, and Sharon is a PTSD-disabled veteran. Ironically, Mark has done volunteer service with an organization that helps the homeless. Through their own difficulties and life experience, they understand that things can’t always be done in the conventional way:
They fell for the scam in part, Mark said, because the fake landlord preyed on their vulnerabilities. She told them that a major car accident had left her disabled and unable to talk on the phone. The two dealt with the paperwork completely through email…
… And ended up homeless.
Ready for a laugh?
For comic relief, here is a quote from the archives of writer Heather Murdock:
A Rwandan government program to stop people living in thatched houses as part of a plan to alleviate poverty left hundreds of Batwa Pygmy families homeless…
But that kind of stuff only happens in “developing” third-world countries, not in an enlightened and progressive place like the United States. Right?
Remember Hurricane Katrina, and all the people it made homeless, and how some of them were loaned FEMA trailers to live in? By December of 2010, there were still 221 of these trailers in New Orleans, still occupied by people who as yet, for whatever reasons, had no other place to live. City officials called them a blight, and warned the residents to get out or pay heavy fines amounting to $500 per day. The following month, Julianne Hing reported:
The trailers were never designed to be permanent housing. Many who stayed in them years after the storm stuck around not out of choice; they had nowhere else to go. For many in New Orleans, such remains the case today… With these final FEMA eviction notices, [Mayor] Landrieu sends the message that he’s determined to beautify the city, if not address housing accessibility issues for people who most need help.
Hing quoted Lance Hill of the Southern Institute for Education and Research:
The blight eradication program, if not done correctly, can become a poor-person eradication program.
It wasn’t until a year later that the last trailer left New Orleans. In the meantime, another story came from the beleaguered city, of an employed 58-year-old woman named Barbara Gabriel who had lived in a Housing Authority apartment since 1975. Her errant nephew was arrested for selling drugs, and gave her address to the police. So the Housing Authority prepared to throw her out. Blair S. Walker reported:
‘I did not give him permission to use my address,’ says Gabriel… ‘He doesn’t live with me and he is not on my lease.’ Gabriel had been targeted under a ‘one strike and you’re out’ policy established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1996. ‘One strike’ allows housing authorities to evict tenants following one drug-related offense.
Even if the legal tenant knew nothing about it and had nothing to do with it. So remember the chilling refrain of the Berrymans’ song:
And don’t forget, it’s sad but true
Next time around it could be you
Source: “A portrait of Connecticut’s homeless,” Courant.com, 02/09/11
Source: “Family of 5 Homeless After Craigslist Rental Scam,” KTLA.com, 09/03/13
Source: “Vet with PTSD, Amputee Husband and Their 3 Kids Homeless,” The Huffington Post, 09/13/13
Source: “Rwandan Government Program to End Thatched Housing Leaves Pygmies Homeless,” Bloomberg.com, 05/31/11
Source: “New Orleans Dumps FEMA Trailers — and Maybe the People in Them,” Truth-Out.org, 01/04/11
Source: “Eviction Threat, for No Reason,” AARP.org, 09/01/10
Image by Bart Everson.
House the Homeless blog has been looking at the various ways in which veterans are denied their rights, a terrible situation which often results in homelessness and premature death. There are the enormously long waits before a case can be considered and acted upon. As we learned, workers in the Veterans Administration system have done disgraceful actions like shredding files.
Even when troubled vets are able to access the help they were guaranteed by the government, sometimes they sabotage their own treatment by not telling the whole truth about the extent of their symptoms (because they don’t want to be branded crazy) or by refusing to take their meds, for any number of reasons. Often, people who are mentally unbalanced don’t even realize how out of balance they are. This is part of the problem.
Activists put a lot of work into raising awareness, but sometimes the best intentions lead to trouble, as popular TV personality Dr. Phil (Phil McGraw) found out last spring. He aired a program designed to remind Americans that thousands of veterans, not only from Iraq and Afghanistan, but from Desert Storm and even the seemingly forgotten Vietnam conflict, are still suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on a daily basis.
A member of the public who entered the subsequent debate talked about how family members of PTSD victims “walk on egg shells,” always afraid they might say the wrong thing to the disturbed veteran who is their loved one. Dr. Phil encountered the media version of the same problem, making the very public mistake of titling this particular episode of his show, “From Heroes to Monsters?”
Despite the presence of a question mark, implying that the matter is not decided but is indeed under discussion, the host took heavy fire, with some elements of the veteran community demanding an apology. People called the episode’s title ignorant, unjustifiable, stigmatizing, insulting, and ratings-driven. On the other hand, the old Hollywood saying, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” might apply here. The well-publicized outrage served to get even more people talking about the issue.
Columnist Torrey Shannon, the wife of a 100% PTSD-rated combat veteran, was disappointed not only by the title, but by the advice given by Dr. Phil’s guest expert, Dr. Frank Lawlis, who wrote a book called The PTSD Breakthrough. He recommends chewing gum to relieve stress, though Shannon’s own internet research suggests that gum chewing is more likely to raise the person’s blood pressure and introduce artificial sweeteners of questionable value into the system.
Dr. Lawlis also recommends blue light bulbs, strong mouthwash, and colonic cleansing, none of which might be harmful in themselves, but which Shannon finds trivializing. She has little patience with the idea of yoga breathing exercises or participation in a drum circle, and is very upset by the suggestion of an ancient traditional method of self-healing, saying:
The book continues into dangerous territory by recommending a combat veteran with PTSD go on a vision quest, much like American Indians used to do. Vision quests require spending 7 days alone with no intake but water until a symbol appears in your consciousness.
However… such unconventional methods are also recommended by people who really, really do know what they are talking about, like Karl Marlantes, author of What It Is Like to Go to War, who believes that incorporating ritual and ceremony into a veteran’s return could truly make a difference. Many therapists are extremely impressed with the results obtained when PTSD victims are given the powerful psychedelic compound known as ayahuasca.
For a website called Healing Those Who Serve, Janice Arenofsky writes:
With the rise of psychological ailments among Iraq and Afghanistan War vets, military and VA hospitals have begun to rethink how they deal with this age-old scourge of war. Here is a rundown on six new methods of handling combat-related emotional trauma.
She proceeds to discuss acupuncture, meditation, music therapy, animal therapy, Emotional Freedom Technique, and Virtual Reality Treatment, all of which have been used by professionals. So, there is a lot going on in the PTSD recovery field of which Dr. Phil’s critics might not be aware.
Although Dr. Phil changed the controversial title of the episode before it was aired again, he remained adamant about the outrage he feels about the overall situation. According to the figures he found, for every battlefield death in the recent wars, there have been about 25 veteran suicides. Dr. Phil wrote for his online readers:
Some viewers expressed concern, and even disappointment, with the show’s original title… Our intent was to acknowledge the question so often cited in the media, not to make a statement, and to emphasize the severity of the pain and suffering our guests say they experience. I really wanted you to hear firsthand the effects that PTSD can have on war heroes and their families, and I’m grateful to our guests for being so candid and honest about their experiences.
One of Dr. Phil’s fans, by the way, in the comment section of his page offered information on The Soldiers Project, which the organization’s website describes like this:
We are a group of licensed mental health professionals who offer free psychological treatment to military service members (active duty, National Guard, Reserves and veterans) and their loved ones who have served or who expect to serve in the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Source: “Regarding Dr. Phil’s ‘From Heroes to Monsters?’ Episode. Here’s Why America is Outraged, or Should Be!,” TorreyShannon.com, 04/21/12
Source: “Treating PTSD in Non-Traditional Ways,” HealingThoseWhoServe.org, 07/22/13
Source: “Heroes in Pain,” DrPhil.com, 04/25/12
Image by Keegan.
Like many entertainers, comedian Greg Proops is anti-war but pro-soldier, and believes that a lot of Americans see no choice other than enlistment, because “the economy is so awful and I think that the underclass has to join the service to get three squares and some health care.” And nowadays, the underclass includes just about everybody. Now, what about when the soldiering is over and the person has to reestablish a life at home?
The performer wants his audiences to realize that when veterans are discharged, in many cases their troubles are just beginning. They expect the experience they have gained and the service they have rendered to count for something. Instead, they often find themselves hungry, sick, disabled, mentally confused, emotionally troubled, and experiencing homelessness.
The boring, preachy part
When Proops records shows in front of live audiences, each episode includes a “boring preachy part” where he launches a tirade against whatever current news item has stirred up his indignation. Actually, these rants are far from dull, and in his June 3 podcast he took the opportunity to point out that female veterans are the fastest-growing segment of the American homeless population. Proops was alerted to this dismaying fact by the documentary, War Zone/Comfort Zone, which is now available on YouTube.
For Memorial Day, filmmaker Lizzie Warren described her experience in the pages of Salon:
I followed the story of two women — one of them a Gold Star mother — who fight to establish Connecticut’s first transitional, supportive house for women veterans. The women and their allies faced neighborhood opposition in several towns, and establishing a home with fifteen beds for women veterans and their children took more than four years.
Four years! To get 15 women and kids into a house! There are thousands and thousands of homeless veterans out there, and more arriving every day. This rate of progress is unacceptable. Warren notes that:
Women veterans face a dense constellation of issues: low wages, a lack of childcare and family housing options, inadequate gender-specific services at the Veterans Administration and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from combat and Military Sexual Trauma.
A February New York Times article by Patricia Leigh Brown hit the same theme:
While male returnees become homeless largely because of substance abuse and mental illness, experts say that female veterans face those problems and more, including the search for family housing and an even harder time finding well-paying jobs.
We would add that a great number of vets suffer from the effects of PTSD, which is not the same as mental illness, being more preventable and more treatable. It is an enormous factor just the same.
At least 10% of the homeless veterans who are known to have spent nights in shelters are women. Transitional housing funded by Department of Veterans Affairs grants are mostly designed for single men, and 60% of them don’t allow children. Yet female veterans are much more likely than males to have custody of children.
California, here we come
Brown points out that a quarter of homeless women vets (and men too) are located in California. One out of every four homeless veterans lives there, yet as House the Homeless recently noted, California is a state whose bureaucracy has not yet caught up with the reporting requirements that were put in place to help the VA keep track of veteran suicides. This too is unacceptable.
Texas is another large state that is both rife with homeless veterans and behind in its statistical reporting. Journalists started noticing at least a couple of years ago that expanded services were needed, especially for women, especially for women with dependent children.
Alex Branch interviewed the director of Fort Worth’s nonprofit organization Grace After Fire. Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel, is tuned in to every nuance of the situation. Branch quotes Olson:
Almost all the facilities built to help homeless veterans are built around the male model. You don’t find them with child care, and playgrounds and common areas for women. We are going to need those kinds of places.
At the time when Branch did his research, the homeless veterans program administered by the VA in Fort Worth had housed 117 veterans, of which only 12 were women. He also took care to point out that although female veterans might be better educated than their civilian counterparts, their unemployment rate is twice as high because the skills they learned in the military do not carry over well into civilian life.
On this page, the Government Accountability Office offers a downloadable PDF document called “Actions Needed to Ensure Safe and Appropriate Housing” which addresses the needs of women vets.
Source: “No holidays or parades for homeless women veterans,” Salon, 05/27/13
Source: “Trauma Sets Female Veterans Adrift Back Home,” The New York Times, 02/28/13
Source: “Help hard to find for homeless female veterans,” Star-Telegram.com, 03/09/11
Image by Lizzie Warren.
A friend of House the Homeless recommended looking up street photographer Pachi Tamer, who takes pictures of people experiencing homelessness and publishes them via Instagram, under the name of Cachafaz. The finest ones resemble the works of old European masters that hang in museums. It was inevitable to form that impression, even before looking up the next online source, which voiced a similar opinion:
These are portraits, some very powerful and with the dignity and grace of Renaissance religious paintings.
That was said by Josh Q, who also believes that Tamer ought to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and said so just last month. A little farther back in time, Tamer was interviewed by Derek Shanks, who ascertained that the photographer was born in Argentina and works at an advertising agency in Austin, TX, and asked about his history. Tamer answered:
I went to high school at ‘Hermanos Maristas,’ a Catholic private school in Pergamino. We used to go to very poor neighborhoods with our teachers to help people. We even built a school for them once. And also I learned to help people from my parents. My father was a doctor and he used to take care of people in need for free. My mom is a psychiatrist and at 72 years old she’s still helping people with their problems.
Hidden behind that simple biographical description is a powerful truth about the future and what needs to be done. Obviously, as a society, we need to provide a good education for as many children as possible. We need to promote as many living-wage-paying jobs as possible for parents, so their kids have the support system they need, to do well in school, so that when the time comes they in turn will find jobs that pay at least a living wage.
But this is not, as we commonly and superficially assume, only so these kids can live adequately themselves and not be a drain on the public budget. There is much more to it. Some of them will also be active in helping other people, and they need to acquire the skills and talents and motivation to do it.
Here is another quotation that Shanks captured from Pachi Tamer about the subjects of his photos:
I approach them with respect. I shake their hands. I sit on the street besides them. I share a cigarette with them. I ask them how they’re doing. Then I explain my project and sometimes show them a couple of other pictures. I listen to them. They trust me because I trust them.
Tamer has a side project, a crowdfunding effort called “One Dollar Dreams,” whose object is to get at least a few people something to make life worthwhile. One of the portraits that Shanks chose to show, as illustrative of the artist’s work, is the 18th of the series, where the subject was photographed at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). This institution’s fate has has been a bone of contention lately. Many businesses and civic leaders would like to see all the services like ARCH and Caritas and the Salvation Army and Angel House and Austin Travis County Integral Care, moved right out of downtown.
If done properly and for the right reasons, it could be a good idea, and House the Homeless president Richard R. Troxell is willing to entertain it. One of the factors he mentioned to journalist Josh Rosenblatt is the Public Order Initiative, which along with the movement to move services out of town, proves how anxious the civic authorities are to relocate the people experiencing homelessness to somewhere else. The huge Waller Creek project aims to remake downtown Austin, and housed citizens don’t enjoy their celebratory nights out partying when they have to see destitute people in public places.
Source: “Pick of the Day: Pachi Tamer on Instagram,” Inside Flipboard, 12/21/12
Source: ““I Just Want Everyone To Look Into Their Eyes And See Their Souls,” We Are JUXT, 12/16/11
Source: “Latest Homeless Initiative: Bust ‘Em?,” The Austin Chronicle, 10/12/12
Image by Pachi Tamer.