For about 7 years, in a previous career incarnation, I worked with the homeless. Our company placed homeless men and women in jobs and connected them with social services at the local food and shelter coalition.
At first, for this kid raised in the coastal suburbs of 'the OC', it was a
bit overwhelming. I had never seen a homeless person, let alone talked to one. But
as time passed, I gained their trust and they began to share their stories with me.
Take "Old Man" Brinker. Yes, that was his name. He was in his 70s, had a great sense of humor and was a really hard worker. He used to come to my office about once a week to shoot the breeze. He'd also give me the scoop on the goings on at the homeless shelter.
One afternoon I leaned across my desk and quietly asked him how he ended up in a homeless shelter. He thought about it for a few minutes, wiped a small tear out of his eye and told me the story.
A Nightmare Journey From the American Dream to a Homeless Shelter
Back in the late 1960s, Old Man Brinker was working in
the natural gas fields in Sweetwater County, Wyoming. It was hard work, but he had steady
work, a devoted wife and a baby girl. For the Brinker's, life was good.
One day, after a particularly grueling and hot summer day in the gas fields,
Old Man Brinker came home to an unusually quiet house.
He peeked in the kitchen and was surprised to find it empty. He went down the hall and found the baby's room empty too. As he walked into the master bedroom, he discovered the lifeless and bloody bodies of his wife and baby. His whole world instantly shattered around him.
Consumed with grief and overflowing with pain, he sought relief first with alcohol, moved on to cocaine, and then heroin. The next twenty years were a blur of arrests, drug busts and gaps in time. Finally, when he had hit rock bottom, he decided enough was enough. He entered a free drug rehab center, got back to work and has stayed clean.
He told me that he could, if he wanted, get an apartment and live like everyone else. But, he's afraid that if he did, if he took that jump back into the "real world", it could all come crashing down like it did so many years ago.
This time he couldn't, he wouldn't survive. For him, being homeless was the "safe" choice. As he put it, "When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose."
Everyone Has a Story
But Old Man Brinker was just one of a daily cast of characters that went in and out of my office. There was Beauford, who was always one step away from his three ex-wives and the wage garnishment for unpaid alimony. There was a woman who said her name was God. No last name, just God.
Most of the homeless folks were gentle, doing their best to keep their head above water, battle their respective demons, and make it to another day. That's not to say that there weren't some scary times.
One time there was a guy named Comanche, a really big guy, a guy who would make John Wayne look wimpy, who pulled a knife out of his boot when I told him that I didn't have any work for him and wouldn't give him any money. Truth be told, I was beyond scared.
I had to embrace my inner Don Corleone and shout him out of the building, locking the door and quickly dialing 911. Later that day I learned from the police that Comanche had been arrested by the FBI for murder.
So, yeah. Some scary moments. But for the most part I wouldn't change the experience for the world.
Close Your Eyes, Clear Your Heart
All in all the experience taught me that, despite what we think, we are all living on the razor's edge. A single event can turn our world upside down. Most importantly, it taught me to always look beyond what our eyes can see.
Under the ragged clothing, beyond the shopping cart or the
seemingly incoherent babble could lurk a Harvard trained physicist, a
man like Old Man Brinker trying to escape great personal tragedy, or in
the case of The Soloist--a musical prodigy.
In the film, opening on Friday, which was based on a true story, Journalist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) discovers Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a former classical music prodigy, playing his violin on the streets of L.A. As Lopez endeavors to help the homeless man find his way back, a unique friendship is formed, one that transforms both their lives.
I deeply believe in the power of film to engage, educate and enlighten people on issues around social justice. I really hope that this film will help change the way that our society view the homeless.
Moreover, I hope that people will see this movie as a call to action, that more people will be motivated to donate clothing, money or their time to their local homeless shelter. You might not think that your community has a homeless shelter or any homeless at all, but a quick Yahoo! Search is likely to prove otherwise.
A Call To Action: Help 1 Million Homeless Teens
In October at the 2008 Ypulse Youth Marketing Mashup East, Ron Faris from Virgin Mobile USA gave a really fantastic presentation on the various Virgin Mobile Pro-Social Initiatives. Virgin Mobile, and the Virgin brand, have done some really innovative, creative and interesting work in the music, pro-social, marketing and branding space.
At the end of his presentation on the mobile and texting habits of Gen Y, he talked about the Virgin Mobile awareness campaign to shed a light on the issue of homeless teens.
Want to hear something shocking? According to research conducted by Virgin Mobile, there are approximately 1 million homeless teens in the United States of America.
These teens are homeless for a variety of reasons ranging from being kicked out by their parents due to sexual orientation, abusive parents or being abandoned. This figure just floored me.
I've spent a lot of time working with homeless adults, but I was woefully ignorant on the subject of homeless teens. To me this is unacceptable. Even in our current national economic situation, we still have the resources to get our kids off the streets. It's about priorities. It's about kids.
Virgin Mobile has compiled a list of resources and actions that you can take to help help homeless teens. But here's the thing. If you stop what you're doing and text "Karma" to "68405" Virgin Mobile and American Eagle will donate a hoodie sweatshirt to a homeless youth.
The power to help homeless teens is literally at your fingertips.