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Outsider Hero Bruce Springsteen Champions the Homeless

1992, McNichols Arena, DenverThe names of certain celebrities are inevitably linked with the causes they embrace, and one of the most prominent examples of that is Bruce Springsteen. He has always been a compassionate friend of the underdog, the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, and anyone who sees the possibility of making a living wage as a mirage in the desert. He has especially supported people experiencing homelessness.

There was his work in Philadelphia, back in 1985, with the Committee for Fairness and Dignity for the Homeless; the 1987 All-Star Benefit for Homeless Children at Madison Square Garden in New York; the 2005 concert in Los Angeles to benefit PATH (People Assisting The Homeless) — well, you get the picture. He has made generous donations to food banks, and helped homeless groups not only in the United States but other countries as well.

There are the songs, like “Brothers Under the Bridge” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” and many others with similar themes. Springsteen’s 2007 album Give US Your Poor carried on with the tradition of raising awareness about homelessness, and included the work of homeless musicians.

Biographer Dave Marsh, speaking of one particular period of intense work on homeless issues, wrote,

Springsteen processed the information he received as an artist, not a politician. In all his meetings, he felt that he received at least as much from the community group as he gave to them.

Many people share the feeling expressed by Richard R. Troxell, who says,

The travails of homelessness are easier experienced through the songs of Bruce Springsteen… To so many working stiffs, and especially to those of us who have hit rock bottom, he is simply, ‘The Boss.’ His words always seem to hurt us and at the same time free us.

We all have at least one “I almost met” story, and Richard has one about almost meeting Springsteen. It was a wild time in Austin, early 1996, when the city’s ordinance against “camping” went into effect, and there was citizen unrest. Richard and other advocates for the homeless and the working poor were making speeches and organizing the Coalition to Repeal the Ban. At a homeless campsite, writer Molly Ivins and musician Steve Fromholz caroused all night in defiance of the ban. From a local monastery, Brother Michael hit the street to declare,

This ordinance would have put Jesus in jail.

Here is Richard’s account, from Looking Up at the Bottom Line:

Bruce Springsteen was in town that night. He was performing at the Austin Music Hall… He had sent word that he wanted to meet me. When I heard this, I felt a validation for our efforts even beyond our own belief of our right actions. But all night I struggled with small rolling skirmishes between the guys and the police. Heckling words of antagonism were used like swords all night, and they needed to be calmed. I spent the night stamping out flaming ducks. I never made it to meet The Boss, but the fact that he had dedicated the T-shirt and concession sales to House the Homeless satisfied me that night.

More than once I have thought of that as a missed opportunity, and more than once I’ve wished that I had a chance to meet him and share with him our plans, even today, to turn this thing around.

A person who doesn’t live inside must live outside. If living outdoors is defined as “camping,” and camping is against the law, then living itself is illegal for these people. Imagine being officially declared as having no right to live. It’s no wonder that the ignorant yahoos feel entitled to assault and kill people experiencing homelessness. It’s like the authorities have declared open season on them.

And now Austin is gearing up for another confrontation between the homeless and the housed. Its Sit/Lie ordinance is seriously flawed, and, in fairness to human dignity, probably should not exist at all. Many medical conditions that people might be suffering from are not taken into account. House the Homeless did a survey to illustrate the problem. A staggering 94 % of the respondents said that when they needed to sit down, they were unable to find a bench, and some of these folks have long-standing, debilitating physical illnesses or disabilities.

The law is so loosely written that people waiting for buses could technically be ticketed for violations. By strange coincidence, the ordinance particularly applies in the part of town where a number of agencies and services that help the people experiencing homelessness are located, and the whole thing is a big mess. So, watch for further developments on that front.

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Source: “Bruce Springsteen: two hearts : the definitive biography, 1972-2003,” Google Books
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Image by Tim Van Schmidt, used with permission.