Saturday, January 15, 2011

Ted Williams's tale of homelessness and what helping really means

Last night I saw some commentary on the sad story of Ted Williams, the previously homeless man with the golden voice, who was discovered on the street, made into an instant celebrity, and then presented with job offers to put that voice to use. Problem solved!

It turns out, surprise of surprises, that Mr. Williams had some issues with substance abuse and other problems that helped put him on the street and no doubt helped to keep him there. Once off the street, it became obvious to those around him that helping just wasn't going to be as easy as providing a roof over his head and money in his pocket.

At the moment, it appears that a benefactor has provided resources for him to enter a rehab centre. We wish him luck.

The talking head on MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan show (didn't catch the name of the young fellow) could only say lamely that this will now make it harder for us to want to help people on the street. What a stupid thing to say.

Although I have done work on the issue of homelessness, I don't claim to be an expert. I can tell you, however, that anyone with a lick of sense saw this train wreck coming a mile away.

People end up on the street for any number of reasons and I suppose there are a few stories like the one made into a movie with Will Smith where he plays a perfectly ambitious guy who finds himself on the street, through no fault of his own, while being trained to be a stockbroker. Yeah, I'm sure that happens all the time. It turns out all he needed was an opportunity and -- Bob's your uncle -- problem solved, credits roll, a few tears in the movie theatre are shed and everyone is happy.

In the real world, I suspect that most people living on the street need a range of services to get back on their feet. In most cases it's just not going to be that easy. There may be addictions involved, as in Mr. Williams case. There may be psychological issues, as is so often the case now that we have emptied so many facilities in the interest of budget cuts. There are very likely issues to do with providing fairly mundane but essential supports to integrate people back into the world, especially if they have been out of that world for a while.

I'm just saying that Mr. Williams's story should not make us nervous about helping homeless people. What it should do is serve to remind us that helping is frequently not as easy as flipping a switch and then walking away smugly satisfied that we have made the world a better place by our supposedly selfless act.

There is usually a lot more involved. Perhaps this case can remind us of that, as much as Americans like simple and happy endings.

Apparently the only lesson drawn by the guy on MSNBC is that we shouldn't help people at all if it's going to be hard. That's no fun.

(Cross-posted to Lippmann's Ghost.)

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