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Homeless Man Has a Talent. Film at 11.

January 7, 2011

And suddenly, everyone in Canada and the United States cares about homelessness. About one homeless person anyway. Well, everyone cares about this guy.

You’ve probably seen Ted Williams on the news or on the youtubes, and you probably said to yourself “He really does have a golden radio voice!” and to others “Come listen to this homeless guy talk!” And then you probably said to anyone who would listen “It’s a good thing that homelessness is such a simple problem with easy solutions! Someone give this guy a job and we can all feel charitable in the New Year.”

Oh, you didn’t say that last part? Are you sure? Really? I’m confused, because someone must be saying it. Otherwise why the hell else are job offers flooding in? Why is he being interviewed on every morning show in the nation (EVERY ONE, I checked)? Did I miss something, like that his radio voice cures cancer, or he’s the last surviving WW1 vet, or he’s undercover homeless trying to track down the ninjas that killed his family, or he’s releasing an audio cookbook of 101 Recipes Your Kids Will Love?

Of course not. None of that is necessary for a homeless person to be newsworthy. Like old, ugly, or fat people, homeless people just need to be entertaining in order to merit our attention. It’s as if our cultural expectations of certain groups of people are so low that they only need to prove they can do one thing competently for us to re-evaluate their status as sub-human. Remember Susan Boyle? Just like that. And just like it, the media and other corporations have been quick to cash in.

Now, I don’t know Mr. Williams. I do not know his specific struggles, his history, his resources. I also do not fault him at all for taking advantage of any positive opportunity that comes his way as a result of his media attention.

What I do know, however, is what every Housing First advocate, community development professional, poverty advocate, or person with a reasonable social conscience knows: homelessness is not about lacking a home. Homelessness is a complicated phenomenon that very frequently intersects with abuse and violence, mental illness or injury, physical illness or injury, drug and alcohol dependency, intergenerational cycles of poverty, and poor social support regarding any of the above. As such, homelessness is not solved just by getting people into apartments. They have probably all had their own places at one time or another, and lost them for one reason or another. When housing caseworkers place an individual in housing, they have to follow up with months of job skills training, dependency treatment, financial literacy training, and a whole constellation of related services, and still many individuals are not able to maintain that housing. There are reasons why people are h0meless, and these reasons will keep them homeless unless they are addressed.

So it irritates me that this media frenzy is all about how amazing it is that this one person is good at something. First, it implies that most homeless people have no redeeming qualities (just like describing Obama as an articulate Black man implies that most Black men are gibbering morons), and second, it implies that we only need to care about homelessness when the person involved is talented, charismatic, drug-free (Mr. Williams has apparently been clean for most of a year), and media-friendly. Who cares about all the homeless drug addicts? We can’t give them haircuts and put them on morning shows expecting them to draw sympathy and sponsorship, so they might as well stay on the street.

I wish Mr. Williams the best, and hope that along with the attention and job offers he gets some broader social support. I hope that this lucky strike turns out to be a net positive for him, bringing him closer to a life that comforts and fulfills him.

I also hope that a few people with jobs and homes are inspired by Mr. Williams’ story to give some time or money to their local homeless shelter or low-income housing advocacy group.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2011 2:24 pm

    Though I see your point, I think you come down a little harsh here.

    For one thing, describing Obama as an articulate black man doesn’t necessarily imply that most black men are gibbering morons, but it does imply that there are relatively few articulate black men, especially in (American) politics.

    The video of this fellow is remarkable in that
    1. (according to him) he hit rock bottom, and he’s trying to work his way back up.
    2. He wants and is actively looking for a job

    It’s an important reminder that it is not true that homelessness is an insurmountable problem and that homeless individuals are incapable of (or unmotivated to seek) self-improvement. Here’s a guy who apparently got himself sober on his own, and is now reaching out through his odd talent to improve his situation. That’s an incredibly encouraging story, and pretty important for maintaining popular support for these programs.

    As for his particular case, I don’t really see the difference between this an any other rags-to-celebrity story that are a central myth of capitalism. See Justin Bieber and J.K. Rowling.

  2. January 7, 2011 6:20 pm

    You are right, I was a little harsh. Thank you for calling me out on it.

    This man is remarkable, and is proving himself to be more and more so with every update. Last I heard, when he was recently struggling with the attention and craving drugs, and called a counsellor instead – which is certainly not an easy thing to do and he should be commended for it.

    I’ve just worked with so many people in dire situations, all of them with life stories full of tragedy, desperation, and hope, and it really bothers me that so many stay invisible simply because they don’t have a media-friendly talent or somesuch. Homelessness (and poverty in general) should be important issues in themselves, not only when they effect people we like. I guess that was the central thesis of my post.

    You are right, though, that it is good to have a public reminder that things can get better, and people can work towards change. As much as I hate the rags-to-riches capitalism myth for promoting unattainable ideals and subtly blaming the victims of poverty, those stories do provide the inspiration that motivates some to change.

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