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Homelessness and Fame

Justin TimberlakeThanksgiving dinner at the Los Angeles Mission has attracted show business personalities for many years. They wear distinctive aprons and get their pictures taken, ladling out portions of food for people experiencing homelessness.

This year, under the direction of “Top Chef” winner Michael Voltaggio, the mission served up:

3,000 pounds of smoked turkey, 700 pounds of corn and maple stuffing, 80 gallons of gravy, and 800 pounds of vegetables in addition to twice-baked potatoes, spaghetti squash casserole and pumpkin pie.

Natural disasters always inspire celebrities to help the newly homeless. Large parts of America’s east coast are still struggling with the ruin brought by Hurricane Sandy. Alec Baldwin visited his old school, New York University, to raise the morale of students who were evacuated into a recreation center. Jerry Seinfeld and other comics will donate the proceeds of the Sandy Storm Relief Benefit (December 19) to people made homeless by the flooding.

AFC’s Drop-In Center — where kids living on the street could walk in and receive food, showers, clothing, medical care, housing referrals, employment assistance, HIV testing and treatment, and mental health and substance abuse services — was completely destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

Those words from Tracie Egan Morrissey describe the fate of the innovative and essential Ali Forney Center, a place where lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth could feel at home. This project was so important to actor Bea Arthur that when she died, her will gave the AFC $300,000.

Bless their publicity-seeking hearts, celebrities are often involved with activism, and quite a few famous people have helped raise funds for many good causes, which is always appreciated. More importantly, celebrities help raise awareness, which is why there is nothing wrong with seeking publicity. Some very nice folks do it.

As an example, House the Homeless wants as many people as possible to wrap their heads around the concept of Discharge No One Into Homelessness, and then proceed to sign the petition, print out the petition, and tell friends, and so forth. That’s just how we roll.

As for the motives of the various celebrities, there is a temptation sometimes to be suspicious and judgmental. When Kim Kardashian shows up to serve meals at the LA Mission, is that exploitation, or what? For an entertainer who is just getting started, the whole public relations game is vital, and it’s always good to be known as a volunteer. At that point in a career, sponsoring a charity might be more beneficial for the calculating striver than for the organization they are helping.

When the person is truly famous, with a high name-recognition score, then the alliance does more good for the helping organization. It might be ambition or pure altruism, but whatever degree of influence a celebrity wields, if they are out there trying to use that influence for good, then more power to them.

Often, the publicity has nothing to do with activism in aid of a cause. For some reason, anytime celebrity connects with homelessness, it’s a story. Like that actor who bumped into a guy’s shopping cart, and the Interwebs can’t stop flapping their jaws about it.

One prominent media tizzy concerned a very famous actor and musician, who probably doesn’t deserve the blame. It looks like he got blindsided by a friend with not much class and too much time on his hands. What happened was, Justin Timberlake and his sweetheart Jessica Biel pitched a big fancy wedding in Italy. A guy who sells real estate went into the streets of Los Angeles and paid people experiencing homelessness to record various greetings to the couple, labeled as messages from “your Hollywood friends who couldn’t make it.”

Gawker got hold of the video and exposed it to the world, and the real estate guy unleashed his lawyers, who said it was a “private joke” and they had better cease and desist. Everybody had something to say about it, and TMZ interviewed one of the “actors,” who was paid $40, which isn’t bad for reading a few lines. But when the man found out that the whole episode had contributed to spoiling someone’s wedding, he felt that a trick had been played on him.

Justin Timberlake handled the situation as responsibly as a celebrity could, under the circumstances, and issued a handsome apology which said, in part:

I was always taught that we as people, no matter what your race, sex, or stature may be, are equal… As it pertains to this silly, unsavory video that was made as a joke and not in any way in mockery… I want to say that, on behalf of my friends, family, and associative knuckleheads, I am deeply sorry to anyone who was offended by the video. Again, it was something that I was not made aware of. But, I do understand the reaction and, by association, I am holding myself accountable.

Another recent apology was sent out into the world by comedian Tracy Morgan after a lot of people got mad at him for saying homophobic things during his standup comedy routine. Many professional entertainers make podcasts, whose archives now contain hours of debate about this particular issue. One side feels that nobody should ever say anything mean, bullying, homophobic, racist, or whatever. The other side says, basically, “You don’t get it. A lot of comics do material in character. Did anyone scold actor Carroll O’Connor for the lines he spoke as Archie Bunker in the classic series ‘All in the Family’? Of course not, because they got it.”

At any rate, Morgan visited the Ali Forney Center (before it was flooded) to raise his consciousness and relate to some homeless kids. He also issued a public statement:

While I am an equal opportunity jokester, and my friends know what is in my heart, even in a comedy club this clearly went too far and was not funny in any context.

TV actor Erin Moran has been in the news lately, not as an activist, but as the exact kind of trainwreck that media consumers hunger for. The former “Happy Days” star suffered foreclosure about a year ago and was evicted from her home a few months later. She and her husband (who is employed) moved to a trailer park, then to a series of down-scale hotels, and the public seems to be waiting, breath held, for the day when this unfortunate couple hits the streets.

Admittedly, Moran seems to have 99 problems in her personal life, but she’s not a veteran with PTSD or a youth who “aged out” of foster care. And neither are a lot of the other people who have no place to stay. This is the point made by Joel John Roberts, CEO of PATH, who also writes for The Huffington Post:

Celebrities who become homeless are an extreme version of the warning that ‘it could happen to anyone.’ Yes, homelessness could happen to you or me. If a celebrity can become homeless, then so can I… Something unexpected could happen — chronic illness with insufficient health insurance, losing a job, or developing mental health issues. Or we might just make foolish decisions. We could turn to substances to cope with depression, break the law in a moment of desperation, or gamble away our savings… I guess the only way to truly end homelessness for people, both rich and poor, is to help them address their personal issues and provide affordable housing.

Reactions?

Source: “LA Mission Serves Up 76th Annual Thanksgiving Dinner,” CBS Los Angeles, 11/21/12
Source: “Bea Arthur’s Favorite Charity, a Shelter for Homeless LGBT Youth … ,Jezebel, 11/05/12
Source: “World’s Worst Wedding Joke,” Salon, 10/26/12
Source: “Tracy Morgan visits homeless gay teenagers on apology tour,” DailyMail.co.uk, 06/18/11
Source: “Homeless Celebrities: ‘Happy Days’ to Homeless Days,” The Huffington Post, 10/03/12
Image by nikkiboom.

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