Real homelessness

Back when I was a young writer at The Tennessean in the mid-1990s, the newspaper decided to shoot for a Pulitzer.

That wasn’t the officially stated goal, but we all knew the editors were gunning for something special to put a once-great newspaper back on the national map. In other words, The Tennessean needed to matter again.

Hence, two reporters went undercover in something the paper called “Inner City Diary.” They posed as a married couple and lived near a public housing complex for 30 days. Once the experience wrapped, and the reporters were back sipping $4 coffees and sleeping in cloud-like beds, The Tennessean ran the series, day by day by day.

And, well, it wasn’t received as the bigwigs anticipated.

People were pissed. Really pissed. Those who resided near the reporters for those 30 days felt duped—and why wouldn’t they? They opened their hearts to people they presumed to be struggling, only to ultimately learn it was all for a newspaper series; all for a failed bid at a Pulitzer. Truth be told, you can’t genuinely understand what it is to endure public housing if you know—come month’s end—there’s an escape. And that you’re making a nice salary. And that the shit you’re eating will soon be replaced. It’s not real, or even close to real. The premise sucks, because it involves both a false narrative and misleading people.

Period.

I thought of this a few hours ago, while watching the above ESPN video clip of two St. Louis Rams players spending a night as homeless city denizens. To be 100-percent clear, I have no doubt William Hayes and Chris Long were sincere in their intentions. The two men should be commended for caring, and also be commended for their awareness. I’ve met many athletes who, after a few years in the league (whichever league we’re referring to), forget about the dark corners of existence.

That being said, something about this feature rubbed me wrongly. Actually, several things about this feature rubbed me wrongly. I’ll just make a list …

1. I really have come to dislike the NFL’s modus. The league loves throwing some heart-stirring music behind a video clip to show how wonderful their players are. I assure you, ESPN could not have done this without NFL permission—and it was no doubt granted quickly. Which is fine. But what about the former NFL players who no longer have their brains? Who can’t care for themselves? Who suffered 101 concussions and no longer properly differentiate between a spoon and a fork? Where are those heart-stirring videos? Homelessness—a nice, safe issue for the NFL to tackle. Spousal abuse—the league has no choice. Damaged former gladiators now drinking blended tuna melt from a straw? Eh, no.

2. Again, props to Hayes and Long. But, well, this was pretty fluffy. You have a security guard nearby at all times. There’s a camera nearby, too. It’s for ONE night. One night—and that’s all. I can hear readers saying, “Why don’t you try it, Pearlman?” and I get it. But this is a false view of homelessness. My wife worked for years at Covenant House in New York City. She ran a shelter for homeless kids. And it was i-n-t-e-n-s-e. Not for me—for her. Homelessness attacks you, grabs you, doesn’t let you go. There’s no feel-good music; no aw-shucks happiness; rarely a positive ending. An enormous number of homeless people suffer from mental illness but never have access to the medical assistance they require. It’s not sleeping on the back of a truck for a night and having a sore back. It’s sleeping on a sidewalk, atop dog piss, thinking you’re John Ritter, hoping someone throws a crumb your way.

3. The white player has greater success asking for money than the black player—and it’s sorta dismissed/chalked up as Long being on the right side of the street. God, I hate simplicity like that. Ask yourself this question: A black homeless man walks up to your car; a white homeless man walks up to your car. Are you seeing the same thing—or does one sight make you feel more uncomfortable? I can’t answer for you, but I know m-a-n-y people who would shudder at the sight of the large African-American man, and feel slightly more at ease with the large white guy.

4. At the end, we’re all supposed to feel better about ourselves because the homeless folks have a place to stay for two months. Odds they’ll be back out on the street when that time ends? A solid 98 percent. But, hey, they got to be on TV, and they hugged football players.

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Am I overly snide? Perhaps. But when ESPN and NFL join forces to make you feel good, it’s not about making a change. No, it’s about eyes on the screen and ticket sales.

Don’t be fooled to think otherwise.

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