In less than 48 hours, Ted Williams, the homeless man with the golden voice, went from sleeping in a homemade tent in the bushes behind an abandoned gas station on E. Hudson Street to announcing the introduction to NBC’s “Today Show” at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.
His story has started a call for civility and respect among those working with the homeless community around Columbus. Williams’ tentmate is even inspired to find a better life.
Columbus Dispatch web producer Doral Chenoweth recorded the now-famous video of Williams, which was viewed more than 12 million times on YouTube before the Dispatch requested it be removed.
“I think it’s opened a lot of people’s eyes to be a little more human to the homeless,” Chenoweth said. He cited an e-mail from a man in Oregon who said he has walked by a homeless man for five years. “Now he’s going to say hello to him.”
Victor Houston doesn’t want to be in a shelter. Houston lived in the homemade tent with Williams for two months, until Williams’ rise to fame left him alone.
“I don’t want to be around people that drink and do drugs,” Houston said. “That ain’t for me.”
Houston said he has been getting a lot of attention since Chenoweth’s video went viral, and also a little assistance.
“They help me out with food, they help me out with blankets,” Houston said. “They’re gonna help me get up out of here.”
Houston said he has been sleeping outside for more than three years.
“I don’t care if I’m in a home or an apartment or whatever,” Houston said.
Shannon Easter, director of clinical and supportive services at Faith Mission, a Columbus homeless shelter that Williams claimed to have visited, said she hopes the story will show that homeless people have their own lives and histories.
“Being homeless is just a moment in that time,” Easter said. “It doesn’t define who that person is.”
Bob Ater, executive director at Columbus Coalition for the Homeless, said Williams represents a pool of people who have unnoticed talents and skills. He said there are homeless engineers, musicians and artists who are unable to showcase their talents because of their condition.
“Among homeless people, there is a lot of talent that goes unrecognized,” Ater said.
Ater and the Columbus Coalition for the Homeless estimate there to be 300-500 homeless people living on the streets in Columbus, not including those in shelters. He said there are hundreds of factors causing homelessness, but some of the most common are drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, unemployment and family break-ups.
Williams, having struggled with alcohol addiction, agreed on “Dr. Phil” on Jan. 13 to enter a 90-day rehabilitation program.
Multiple calls and e-mails to Williams’ agent went unreturned.
Easter said it is difficult for people to get the help they need when overcoming abuse, whether they are homeless or not. She said when someone is ready to enter a treatment program, it is not uncommon for them to wait eight to 12 months for an appointment.
“That’s almost impossible for someone who’s housed,” Easter said. “When their situation is a little more transient, it becomes even more of a challenge.”
The recession has been a challenge for shelters as well. Easter said Faith Mission had a decrease in money and an increase in visitors.
“We’re being asked to do more with less,” she said. “While we do what we can to make it a pleasant environment, it’s a shelter. No one wants to be here.”
Ater agreed, adding that the vast majority of shelter users only stay for one or two nights at a time. He said the strict rules of many shelters are off-putting to some homeless people.
“They have dogs, girlfriends and boyfriends that they can’t take with them,” Ater said. “So the camp is the best alternative for them.”
Although there have been agencies, advocacy groups and charities working to improve life for the homeless for decades, one two-minute video of a man with a “golden voice” has brought the issue into the foreground of the news cycle.
Though the effects on shelters seem no more than thought-provoking, Chenoweth said the physical benefits of Williams’ story will come later.
“The change will be slow, but at least it’s change,” Chenoweth said. “The poor will always be with us, but we could make life a little better for them.”