Soloist’ Author Calls for Solutions to Homelessness

Posted April 15, 2009 at 5:58pm

The release of the movie “The Soloist— next week is giving some advocates on Capitol Hill an opportunity to push for policy changes regarding homelessness and mental illness.

At a Congressional briefing Wednesday in the Capitol Visitor Center, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, author of the book that the movie is based on, called on Congress to increase support for housing the homeless.

Lopez and other advocates for the homeless and mentally ill said that “supportive housing— — affordable housing focused on solving the problem of homelessness — would help eliminate the number of people on the streets. Advocates also said that de-stigmatizing mental illness and offering housing would help create stable environments for the mentally ill and help them stabilize other aspects of their lives.

The housing also gives them the added support of people in the community, said one of the advocates, and much-needed social interaction. The goal of the advocates is $2.2 billion of federal aid to fund 15,000 new units for homeless people.

“We know how to help them and we haven’t done anything about it,— said Lopez, who acknowledged there are several successful programs in Los Angeles, but more has to be done. His book, “The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music,— stems from his newspaper columns about a homeless musician named Nathaniel Ayers.

In 2005, Lopez went in search of a story in downtown Los Angeles. He was intrigued when he heard beautiful music coming from a violin with only two strings. The man playing it, Ayers, was a Juilliard alumnus, and he was not playing for money. Rather, he was standing next to a Beethoven statue for his own inspiration.

While it took time for Ayers to warm up to Lopez, the two became great friends. The Los Angeles Times readers warmed to Ayers as well. The paper received a flood of kind messages and gifts of violins.

“They wanted to help him, and they wanted me to help him,— said Lopez. With some help from one agency and from Lopez, Ayers has been living in an apartment for three years, and he has 10 instruments. Lopez added that he did not want to glamorize the story, pointing out Ayers’ arrests due to peculiar behavior, but he has still come a long way.

Looking back on his meeting with Ayers, Lopez said he was “ashamed that we have a society that had not done anything about this, ashamed that my office was three blocks away and I had not done anything.— The problem he said was that the problems were hidden within certain parts of the city and often “out of sight, out of mind.—

However, there have been achievements in supportive housing and mental illness programs elsewhere. Lopez went to Philadelphia and saw Project H.O.M.E.’s (Housing, Opportunities for Employment, Medical Care, Education) accomplishments in the Ridge Avenue neighborhood.

“It makes me believe anything is possible,— he said. He argued that it was less costly and more beneficial for everyone if the homeless were put into homes rather than be put in jail for small crimes.

Also speaking at the hearing was Hyacinth King, a resident and board member for Project H.O.M.E. Having schizophrenia since college, she was homeless for two years before finding the right programs to address her mental illness and help her find a home. “Every day is a struggle,— she said, but she has the support to continue.

King had no signs of mental health issues until her junior year at Temple University. When King mentioned mental health problems, her father brushed it off, telling her she just needed to “pull myself up by my boot straps.—

Tension at home and stress caused King to leave home and sleep in her car, and after it was towed, she slept in her “cardboard condo.— With a police officer’s help, she started finding programs that got her back on her feet.

Now she is trying to do the same for others. The people she has tried to help are from “all walks of life,— including lawyers or professors. It shows that mental illness does not strike only one area of the population.

One member of the audience asked why nothing had been done if supportive housing was an obviously perfect solution. Lopez explained that in Los Angeles there have been problems finding places to build them. Bob Carolla, director of media relations for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said that the projects require a lot of executive commitment.

With the movie coming out, Lopez hopes it will “humanize the Nathaniels of the world and de-stigmatize mental illness.— He also wants the movie to “change the way people think as citizens of the world. These are not strangers; they are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. We haven’t done very well to help them rebuild their lives.—

But circumstances may change. “I know homelessness is a solvable problem,— said King.