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America's Next Homeless Star!

Laugh Now, But One Day it Might Be You

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AMERICANS LOVE a good by-the-bootstraps redemption story, and I'm no exception. That's why I—and the rest of the world—closely followed the tale of Ted Williams and its short, poignant trajectory.

It began when a reporter from Columbus, Ohio, posted a video of Williams—then just a homeless man on a highway off-ramp holding a cardboard sign that promised he had a "God-given" golden voice. The video went viral the next day, from YouTube to talk shows to the evening news. And much like Susan Boyle, the Britain's Got Talent star who went viral for her unkempt appearance as much as her singing voice, Williams was a national novelty overnight.

Over the next 10 days, Williams shot through the celebrity life cycle with meteoric speed. Entertainment Tonight was giving him a makeover. Dr. Phil was trundling him off to rehab. And one Fox TV affiliate had taken to the streets of Indianapolis, asking homeless people, "Do you have any talent?"

But in Portland's homeless community, the story of Williams' rise to stardom from half a continent away has barely been a blip; advocates here say they're too busy trying to fend off hypothermia deaths like Randy Tinnell's ["Death Behind a Dumpster," News, Jan 13] and physical and sexual assaults on the homeless. Still, in a community that often feels invisible to the national media, the sudden shift of attention was inescapable.

It was the tone of the Williams story that really rankled people like Julie McCurdy, housing organizer for Sisters of the Road and a co-founder of the homeless rights group Right 2 Survive PDX. "It was like he was 'pet of the month,'" she told me. "To me, it was highly offensive."

"I think it's wonderful that that gentleman is getting recognized for his talent," McCurdy emphasizes, "but I think it's completely stupid and fucked up if the rest of society doesn't see us as having talents and drawbacks, strengths, and weaknesses. Honestly, I think you and I even having this conversation drives home the need for [the homeless community] to create our own media."

"The homeless are just like average people," says Patrick Nolen, formerly of Sisters of the Road and formerly homeless himself. "There are some who are extremely talented and some who have no talent."

Nolen has trepidations when we talk, admitting an initial worry that my story will only continue the Williams dog-and-pony show. Reporters usually miss the point, he explains to me, describing a homeless friend who became the focus of a local news story. "The TV reporter was amazed at how great this person was at his particular art form. I was like, hire this person, then. 'Cause he needs a job."

Ibrahim Mubarak, McCurdy's co-founder at Right 2 Survive PDX, says the same thing. "Not to take away from Ted Williams but anybody homeless can do something. We were something before we became homeless, so it shouldn't be a shock to the world."

In fact, Williams has another talent that is being completely overlooked: surviving. It's a talent that folks from other walks of life might find themselves needing soon. Both Mubarak and McCurdy say that, since the housing collapse in 2008, they've seen two or three new families on the street every week. "The reality is that each one of us is this far away from being homeless," McCurdy says.

Mubarak adds: "What I'm seeing after 10 years in the homeless community is that people are not saying, 'Look at those dirty people, look at those homeless people.' They're looking over their shoulders and saying, 'Am I next?' And they really don't know what to do."

McCurdy gives a dry smile: "They don't teach a class in school on how to be a hobo."

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