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.


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.


In Search of Socks, Underwear, and Hats

GuitarsRemember how the musicians of New Orleans went all out, raising funds to help people recover from the aftermath of the deadly hurricane? Now a bunch in Texas are doing a thing called Warm Up Fort Worth. It can actually get pretty cold in that part of the country. Steve Watkins tells us about how the local musicians sent out a call for donations of coats, hats, gloves, socks, and especially underwear, to benefit the people experiencing homelessness.

This is a match made in heaven, because any band either owns or has access to some kind of vehicle big enough to carry stuff around in. Remember the friends of Gram Parsons, who had a hearse for moving their equipment from show to show? It really came in handy when they needed to transport his coffin.

Those trucks and vans are just as useful for collecting blankets, winter clothing, and other practical and necessary items from people fortunate enough to have jobs and homes. Then, the bounty is shared with people who are experiencing homelessness, though they may have jobs. Yes, that happens, more often than you might think. Economic homelessness is the term for when somebody has money coming in, but not enough to even rent a basic, no-frills apartment.

Warm Up Fort Worth started with Phil Wallace, a member of Snake Shaker Revival and a self-described hellraiser musician, from whom Watkins has captured a pithy sound bite:

It’s not easy to be homeless, but it’s easy to become homeless.

The musician himself is unclear about his own motivations. Wallace seems to have received what some would describe as a call, and has formed a conviction that this is what he should be doing at this time, and he doesn’t really have much of a choice. The reporter went along to Family Baptist Church, where the collected clothing is made available as burgers are served. Of that experience he says,

Keeping the distribution orderly is major ordeal… After last week’s drive nearly got out of hand, the volunteers took a firmer stance — telling the eager crowd they would move on if everyone didn’t back up. Order was quickly restored…

When I was a kid, there was a goofy rhyme:

Knock knock!
Who’s there?
Uncle Miltie’s underwear!

And I can’t help being reminded of it, every time I think about the Thermal Underwear Party that traditionally occurs on New Year’s Day in Austin (check out this page at House the Homeless about the last year’s drive). The article contains a typo, by the way. The upcoming Thermal Underwear Party on January 1, 2011, will actually be the 10th annual occurrence of the event. And what a fascinating event it is! Hey, even poverty and homelessness are not serious all the time. And if you can’t have fun with skivvies, what in the world can you have fun with? Maybe the drive will adopt this as its official chant:

Knock knock!
Who’s there?
Austin Thermal Underwear!

Okay, so there’s a reason why I’m not in public relations. Still, it is kind of catchy, no?

But we’re not just talking about warm underwear, important and life-saving as it is. The drive volunteers are also asking for hats, gloves, scarves, and all the same kinds of items that are needed when, for instance, a Veterans Stand Down is scheduled in an area.

Hats are important in cold weather. People who know about these things say that 80% of the body’s heat loss happens through the scalp, which is very vascularized. Your head has a lot of veins in it, so when your blood is up there, it over-chills, and then circulates around making the rest of you cold.

On the same scientific principle, a radiator cools a car engine, and a swamp cooler keeps the temperature reasonable in a trailer. In the summertime, this is a splendid arrangement that nature has made for our comfort and convenience. In the winter, however, a hat can make the difference between staying healthy and getting sick.


Source: “Local musicians help Warm Up Fort Worth,” dfw.com, 11/16/10
Source: “10th Annual House The Homeless Thermal Underwear Party,” House the Homeless, 01/02/10
Image by renschmensch, used under its Creative Commons license.


Celebrities, Thanksgiving, and People Experiencing Homelessness

AkonMaybe you’re a fan of the most-watched soap opera on TV, The Bold & the Beautiful. Apparently, it has 26 million devoted viewers. Journalist Becky Blanton focused her attention on this television program because the creative team has written several homeless people into the script. If we’re understanding this right, one of the characters, a Stephanie Forrester, has been told that she would die of cancer very soon. This news inspires her to become interested in the plight of people experiencing homelessness.

The show’s producers hired 25 people right off Skid Row and recorded them telling their stories, and some of these documentary segments will be woven into the show’s plot line. And there is more. The head writer and executive producer of the show, Brad Bell, is said to have also hired an additional 30 homeless individuals as extras, or actors with non-speaking parts. He has told journalists that this interest is not just temporary, and that he intends to continue to incorporate people experiencing homelessness into the unfolding narrative.

Blanton is interested to discover whether this show will go along with the same old stereotypes, or have the integrity to do something better. She asks,

Will they provide a realistic view of the homeless and the challenges they truly face, or will they sanitize life on the LA streets for viewers?… I hope Bell takes time to address the real issues that affect the majority of the homeless — the lack of affordable housing and child care and living wage jobs.

Blanton sees this as a great opportunity on Bell’s part to influence the attitudes of Americans regarding people experiencing homelessness. Depending on how this widely-viewed serial depicts members of the homeless community, a powerful force for good could be exerted. It might also, she feels, give the housed American public some useful ideas for how to help, and, in some cases, might even put into their heads an idea that wasn’t there before, the idea that we should all help.

Although not a soap opera star herself, Becky Blanton is another kind of celebrity. You’ve heard of TED, which stands for Technology Entertainment and Design. Every year, this nonprofit organization sponsors a series of conferences where people with “ideas worth spreading” come to spread them. In 2009, Becky Blanton spoke at TEDGlobal in Oxford, England. This is a credential of almost unparalleled cachet. Her topic was “The year I was homeless,” and there is a seven-minute video clip on TED’s website. For an appetizer, here are a couple of soundbites:

Homelessness is an attitude, not a lifestyle.

Hope always finds a way.

The Universal Living Wage is the concept that Richard R. Troxell, president of House the Homeless, offers as a solution that will help all Americans. The foundations on which his argument rests are included in the Protected Homeless Class Resolution, whose full text is found in Looking Up at the Bottom Line. Here are just a few of the points he makes:

● There is a shortage of affordable housing stock nationwide.
● The national minimum wage is an insufficient amount of money to secure safe, decent, affordable housing even at the most basic financial level.
● More than the minimum wage is required in every state to be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent, as set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Universal Living Wage could bring about the day when no American is unhoused or hungry. Meanwhile, highly publicized celebrities continue to adopt the cause of helping the homeless.

There is an interesting website called “Look to the Stars,” which keeps track of Hollywood personalities and show business folk, and what charities they are connected with. The search word “homelessness” matches up with 29 celebrity names. Among them are such luminaries as George Clooney, Whoopi Goldberg, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nicolas Cage, Scarlett Johansson, and Eddie Murphy.

The search word “Thanksgiving” brings up 28 matching news items published on the site, where we learn about the philanthropic activities of Kirk Douglas, Gisele Bundchen, Ludacris, Akon, Drew Barrymore, and many other actors, musicians, and fashion models. Celebrities donate their time, talents and money to turkey giveaways, or serve dinner at the Los Angeles Mission, and just generally give it back or pay it forward, to show their gratitude for their own good fortune.

Here, from another source, is a story about a typical celebrity response. It is a cooperative effort including promoters of hip-hop and martial arts to provide Thanksgiving dinners for families. All over the country, people who are famous, and a whole lot of people who are not so famous, do their best to make this holiday a happy occasion for others.


Source: “The Bold & the Beautiful to Feature Homelessness & Poverty,” Homelessness.change.org, 10/27/10
Source: “The year I was homeless: Becky Blanton on TED.com,” blog.ted.com, 07/09
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “Search results for homelessness,” Look to the Stars
Source: “Master P to Help Feed Homeless People on Thanksgiving,” AceShowBiz, 11/13/10
Image by petercruise, used under its Creative Commons license.


Faith-Based Help for People Experiencing Homelessness

Homeless woman rummaging through a trash canIt comes as no surprise that churches are on board with the Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. The principle of sharing material goods with the destitute is a prime directive in every major religion, and if it isn’t, it ought to be. The dates are not exactly the same in each municipality, but the observance of such a Week is an idea whose time has come, and all across America, churches are supporting it.

Did you know there is a Muncy in Pennsylvania? Last Friday, the youth groups of several United Methodist churches banded together to host a “Box City” in the parking lot of Clarkstown UMC, so they could learn first-hand how to have empathy with people experiencing homelessness. Of course, the realism of such events is limited. The kids didn’t even have to go out and scrounge their own refrigerator cartons, which were donated by a local business. But the spirit is definitely in the right place.

Chris Warner, one of the youth leaders, supplied the reporter with details. The participants were…

[…] restricted from having any electronic devices and even food, unless friends and family feed them. A garbage can was filled with sandwiches and snacks organized to look like real garbage… Parishioners provided food and to add realism, half empty bottles of water and wrapped morsels of food where hidden among trash in a dumpster.

The kids didn’t have the experience of real panhandling, but throughout the night they collected cash donations for shelters and food banks. They also received “several truckloads” of food, blankets, and coats, to pass on to local distribution points. The youth were allowed to go into the building for warm-up periods, but apparently, toughing it out was a point of pride. The article quotes one of the teens, Carina Dunlap:

When I told my friends I was sleeping in a box, they just looked at me and asked why? It wasn’t bad sleeping in a box; I was one of two from Clarkstown who didn’t take breaks inside the church.

Another youth, Kelly Reed, said,

It was insane trying to sleep in a cramped box in the freezing cold, and then realize the next morning that’s how some people live their life. We had trouble dealing with it for one night.

In the similar-sounding but differently-spelled Muncie, Indiana, the United Methodist youth held their third annual Lockout for the Homeless, with donations going to the Indianapolis Interfaith Hospitality Network. The Christian Center teamed up with an organization called Alternatives Inc. for an event known as “Reality Check: Confronting Homelessness.”

Same state, different city: In Fort Wayne, Indiana, churches sponsored a Knit-In event where free yarn and knitting lessons were provided, and participants knitted hats and scarves for people experiencing homelessness. In Fort Meyers, Florida, at least 24 faith-based and other organizations have collaborated on a Homeless Service Day and Stand Down at Broadway Community Church. And, of course, there were many more variations on the homeless-simulation experiment.

Kids probably have a lot of fun at these things. How could a bunch of kids get together for a sleepover, and have anything but fun? They probably make some tasteless remarks, and even say jokingly that this homeless gig might not be too bad after all. And what does it mean, really, to perform a sanitized ritual of eating from a garbage can? There are probably people who think that the whole idea is utter nonsense.

But it isn’t. You never know what kind of experience will plant a spark of inspiration in a young person’s mind. Some of these kids will have a different perception next time they see a person eating from a real garbage can. Some of these kids think about it later, alone, at night. They make connections and consider alternatives.

It would be great to hear from some young people who have actually participated in events of this kind. Have you done a homeless sleepout? Did it do anything to your head? If so, what?

Source: “Youth prepare for National Homeless Awareness Week by sleeping in boxes,” The Luminary, 11/09/10
Source: “On Your Side Community Calendar,” The IndyChannel.com, 11/10
Image by Franco Folini, used under its Creative Commons license.


Halloween and People Experiencing Homelessness

Dog the Bounty Hunter and Homeless PersonSan Diego, California, is seeing an unusual Halloween celebration this year, as millionaire Jim Lawlor hosts a party to aid the people experiencing homelessness. Lawlor, now the star of a TV reality show, was once in the situation of not having a roof over his head. This was nearly 20 years ago, and since then he became wealthy by inventing specialized goggles for use in spray-painting jobs. The uncredited press release says,

He now devotes much of his energy giving back to the community. ‘How can we call ourselves ‘America’s Finest City’ when we have one of the worst homeless problems in the nation?’, Lawlor asks.

The reality show in which Lawlor is the featured character is, naturally, about him — a guy who throws a lot of parties at the Pacific Beach Castle, produces a bikini calendar, and also donates time, money and energy to philanthropy. Leading up to Halloween, he recruits “angels” and sends them out with bags filled not with candy, but with healthful munchies. This process of delivering holiday swag to street people is called “Reverse-Trick-Or-Treat.”

The genial host draws donors to his parties by having plenty of gorgeous women on hand. He gets the gorgeous women there by offering hefty prizes for the most alluring costumes. The gender politics may be questionable, but there is no doubt that the results are worthwhile. When the partier-goers arrive, they leave their contributions in a donation box. After the total is tallied up, Lawlor himself matches the amount before passing it on to his chosen charitable organization. This year, the group that benefits is Photocharity, which funds the San Diego Youth Services’ Storefront emergency shelter.

In Cleveland, Ohio, the Girl Scouts are doing their part for the Halloween fun of kids in shelters. Cheryl Bohr, who leads a troop of six- and seven-year-olds, told a reporter that she and her daughter got the idea from an article in American Girl magazine. After collecting “gently used” Halloween costumes, the young Scouts plan to deliver them to Project Hope for the Homeless, where they will tour the shelter.

Via Associated Content, Rebecca Rosenburg offers ideas to the personnel of shelters everywhere, on the subject of creating Halloween fun for the children who find themselves spending the holiday on their premises. Of course, families who don’t even make a living wage can’t be expected to buy these frivolities. So first involve the public, and collect gently used costumes and components, as well as Halloween decorations, paper plates, napkins, pumpkins, carving kits, and anything else you can think of to add to the festivities.

Depending on how the institution usually operates, the staff can prepare a Halloween-themed meal, or, if families do their own cooking, ingredients for Halloween-themed goodies can be provided. And, of course, encourage the residents to decorate their own quarters and the common areas, and even outdoors, if that’s appropriate, and if there are donated items to decorate with.

Of course, when the holiday is over, and if there’s room for storage, it’s a good idea to hold onto the costumes and salvageable decorations. Throughout the year, an effort can be made to save old sheets and blankets and odd bits of clothing that can be used to construct costumes next year.

Rosenburg recommends checking area churches and other institutions that invite children for Halloween fun. In my city, for instance, where there is still a pedestrian shopping area called Old Town, the merchants give out candy during the day. The sidewalks are full of costumed kiddies accompanied by their parents or day-care providers. Many churches host “Trunk or Treat,” or similar events. Put up fliers or write it on a chalkboard, just let the customers know that these events are planned.

The news we had all been breathlessly waiting for was announced on the 15th of this month, when Sophie Forbes reported on the Halloween activities of Paris Hilton and her main squeeze, Cy Waits. The celebrity couple first shopped for a carload of pumpkins, then delivered them, along with many other treats, to the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles (a.k.a. Skid Row).

It’s one of the biggest family shelters in the country, and certainly the largest in Los Angeles, with not only transitional housing, but clothes, recovery programs, medical and dental programs, job training, and counseling. The tour that Paris and her boyfriend took of the facility offered, of course, lavish photo opportunities, and it looks like a good time was had by all.

Now, here is a question that apparently is on a lot of people’s minds, going by the evidence of online forums and discussion groups, anyway. At Halloween, is it cool for a housed person to wear a hobo costume, or some other outfit implying homelessness? Is it a consciousness-raiser, or a thoughtless, hurtful deed? Is it offensive, or merely in bad taste? Reactions?

Source: “A Halloween Party To Help Solve The Homeless Problem In San Diego?,” Free Press Release, 10/24/10
Source: “Scouts look to bring Halloween to homeless kids,” The News-Herald, 10/08/10
Source: “Homeless on Halloween: Celebrating Halloween at the Homeless Shelter,” Associated Content.com, 10/07/10
Source: “Good deed of the day: Paris Hilton delivers Halloween goodies to a homeless shelter,” Daily Mail, 10/15/10
Image by Beau B, used under its Creative Commons license.