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What Kind of Help Really Helps?

Music is Life @ Djemaa el FnaPeople 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.

Reactions?

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.