Homeless Americans need a break

Posted July 27, 2010, at 7:19 p.m.

Nancy Pelosi’s kid made a documentary about the homeless in Orange County, Calif. HBO ran the film Monday night.

I tried to watch it with an open mind. But that was an uphill battle for many reasons.

First of all, the homeless families featured were living in the shadow of Disneyland. One of the moms interviewed even worked at “The Magic Kingdom.” But being homeless at Disneyland, even with all that manufactured irony, isn’t intrinsically any better or any worse than being homeless in Middle America or in one of our inner cities. Squandered human resources and unabated human need are ghastly realities no matter where you find them.

I did pause watching the interview of the homeless Disney “cast member” — as the Disney Corp. refers to their theme park employees — and wondered how many folks riding the rides at Disney groaned at the price of admission not knowing that Disney wasn’t paying their employees a living wage.

Unless you count Johnny Depp. According to the Hollywood tabloids that “cast member” made an estimated $50 million to star in this year’s blockbuster “Alice in Wonderland.” The Orlando Sentinel reports Disney crediting the film for its 55 percent increase in earnings during the second quarter of this year. In that three-month period Disney made $953 million.

According to Alexandra Pelosi’s film “Homeless, The Motel Kids of Orange County,” the mom featured in the program made less than $10 an hour. Giving this “cast member” an extra $5 an hour would have cost Disney $2,600 that same quarter assuming she had worked full time.

My second beef with the documentary is a technical one. I found Pelosi’s disembodied voice as she interviewed these homeless families about their lives to be a great distraction from the film. Maybe I’m old-fashioned but if you aren’t going to use narration as the tool to tell your story — filling in the blanks for what the subjects leave out when speaking — then the interviewer should be visible. It’s more work, there are two shots to stage, stand-ups, and cutaways showing the program host. These little visual cues work flawlessly in every news product you see from “60 Minutes” to “The Daily Show.”

But to be fair, I wonder if maybe Pelosi was self-conscious about being in the film. Maybe she doesn’t want to become the next Michael Moore: visibly recognizable for making trouble by reminding America that our middle class is vanishing and more and more average folks are in trouble. Still, she could have worked around all that by hiring a program host. Or maybe some famous person would have volunteered his or her talents. Alexandra must have some great connections considering her mom is speaker of the House of Representatives.

Perhaps she could have gotten someone rumored to have just made $50 million for starring in a kids’ movie. Imagine how high-profile this film about homeless kids would have been if Johnny Depp had narrated the show.

Actually, the least irritating thing about this film was the part that we homeless advocates were supposed to get most alarmed by: the fact that homeless kids in Orange County have their own school. Don’t get me wrong, segregating poor kids is pretty upsetting.

But the truth is, every organization from some random county in the U.S. to our own Veterans Affairs has a 10-year plan to end homelessness. And showing homeless schools, showing that we’ve built infrastructure for homelessness, illustrates the underlying reality that this symptom of endemic poverty and failing governmental priorities will be with us long after those time limits have passed.

At the end of this year, the tax breaks the Bush administration gave to the wealthiest 3 percent of our nation will expire. That’s not the tax rate for folks who make $200,000 a year; that’s the tax rate for folks like Johnny Depp. And our Congress is wrangling over whether or not that’s a good idea. In the face of record deficits, Congress could vote to extend those tax breaks.

Call Congress, tell them that the Depps of the world and his employers like Disney can afford it. While their fellow Americans — especially the homeless ones — need a break.

Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.

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