Posted on January 18, 2011
Ours is a culture of quick fixes. Learn a language in five minutes a day. Lose 14 pounds in 14 days. Become a millionaire by scratching a lottery ticket. We expect problems that have resulted from years of bad luck and bad habits to disappear overnight, and when one quick-fix doesn’t work, we quickly lose patience and move on to the next “sure thing.”
It was no surprise, then, that when Ted Williams burst into the headlines just after the new year, people expected a quick turnaround. Despite a very complicated history that included a decade of homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse, and estrangement from family, the expectation was that he “take advantage” of all the opportunities that were flowing his way and “be good.” “Listen to your mom!” is what The Today Show’s Matt Lauer advised him.
It would have been enough to make anyone’s head spin. This individual went from living on the street and panhandling at traffic lights to having a new house and a lucrative broadcasting contract within a week. He went from invisible nobody to special guest on The Jimmy Fallon Show, Entertainment Tonight, and Dr. Phil in the blink of an eye. With so much invested in his success, people needed to believe that a “fairytale ending” was possible. Disappointment was not an option.
Did we really believe it was going to be that simple?
Less than ten days after skyrocketing to fame, Ted Williams was arrested for disorderly conduct and voluntarily admitted into rehab soon after. Of course, public reactions ran the gamut. “It is truly amazing that Americans always get sucked in by people like Williams. The man is a drunk and almost beyond hope.” “I grew up with one of the best BS artists on the planet…Ted is about one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
Others seemed to feel more compassion. “I am very happy that this homeless person is getting another chance in life: most homeless are more likely to win the [lottery] than to be given such a good chance. I wish him well.”
Regardless of whatever opinions and feelings we may have on the subject, one thing is certainly true. Chronic homelessness is not a quick fix. The spiral into homelessness is often exacerbated by a number of complicating factors, and it can take years. It only stands to reason that true recovery would also take years, and some people struggle with it for the remainder of their lives. Three decades of research tells us that people like Ted Williams can’t even begin to heal without the support and stability that permanent supportive housing offers.
So let’s not kid ourselves. The path is long and the issues are complex. If we are going to insist that people turn their lives around, it only makes sense that we invest our hopes and resources in the strategy that offers them the best chance of succeeding. With permanent supportive housing, we might not get that “fairytale ending” that we crave so much, but we can get something even better: an end to homelessness.