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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Opinion

Tangible philanthropy much preferred over mere thanks to veterans


Jim Wolf, a U.S. Army veteran, is homeless, an alcoholic and has just gone viral.

Chances are, you’ve already seen the feel-good, time-lapse video of his makeover. An extremely weather-beaten and unkempt Wolf stares into the camera while a team buzzes around him, treating him to a haircut, shave, dye job and a fitting with an impeccable suit. At the end, Wolf is shown his reflection in a mirror, at which point he jumps up to hug a member of the makeover team.

The viewer is then informed that Wolf is “scheduled to have his own housing” and is currently attending Alcoholics Anonymous. Our work here is done, ladies and gentlemen. Right? Wrong.

This kind of whitewashing has become society’s go-to for addressing major social issues. Jim’s new suit alone is not going to get him the executive job he is dressed for, but that is what the viewer is cued to think. Jim still has a long row to hoe, as do all of the many thousands of homeless veterans. As of 2010, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated the number of vets in shelters to be 141,975, more than 50 percent of whom are disabled. There’s no telling how many more are on the streets.

The organization responsible for the video of Wolf’s makeover, Dégagé Ministries of Grand Rapids, MI, definitely has its heart in the right place. It works hard to serve the homeless in its community, and it is not veteran-specific. According to its mission statement, “Many hardships exist in life, and none of us are exempt from them. For those we serve at Dégagé, many of whom are homeless and low-income, the hardships can be overwhelming — loss of shelter, loss of employment, loss of a loved one, loss of control and loss of opportunity.” Pragmatic words, but the way Dégagé presents the process of rehabilitation in Jim’s video is pure fantasy.

Never mind the fact that Wolf is still, largely, toothless — recovering from addiction is nothing short of arduous and utterly consuming. Combine that with the major life shift that comes with the transition from living on the street to having housing, and this is a completely earth-shattering event.

That is not to say that Wolf won’t handle it valiantly, give it his all and succeed. However, the video conveys the impression that his ordeal is over and that from here on out it’s smooth sailing, and therein lies the problem.

Raising awareness in any capacity, though, cannot be a bad thing for homeless vets. The clip certainly inspires sympathy for the homeless and forces the viewer to look into the eyes of a real person who has been touched by tragedy.

The trick is making them look further, into the heart of the problem, and consider what they, as individuals, can do to help solve it. The Gloss blogger Hayley Hoover said, “I can’t stop thinking about how much I want to make him a grilled cheese sandwich.” That’s a step in the right direction, anyway.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has committed to the lofty goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015. Their website offers a variety of ways for citizens to reach out to homeless veterans and let them know that help, housing, job training, counseling and many other benefits are a mere phone call away.

Learn how you can do your part at va.gov/homeless.

Opinion columnist Katie Wian is an English junior and may be reached at [email protected]

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