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Pursuit of Happyness: Movie as Object Lesson?

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty's office has invited 120 homeless people to a screening of "The Pursuit of Happyness," the Hollywood flick about a homeless man who becomes a fancy stockbroker. The homeless people will gather tomorrow morning to see the Will Smith vehicle at Union Station.

I can't decide whether this is an inspired attempt at social engineering -- an effort to show the homeless a path to stability and success -- or an offensively simplistic and crude way of demeaning the substance abuse, mental illness and other reasons so many people live on the street. My initial reaction when I saw the press release (full text on the jump) was to be appalled--could people working in the city government really think that a Hollywood rags to riches story would be helpful to people living on sidewalks? But on the other hand, the people attending the screening will get two free meals and a warm morning inside a theater watching a flick they might enjoy--none of which is a bad thing.

So, cruel and dumb publicity stunt or genuine and caring gesture? Your call....

On Thursday, January 25, the Office of Community Relations and Services of the Executive Office of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty together with the Department of Human Services will host a private screening of "The Pursuit of Happyness" at the AMC Theatre at Union Station. The 120 invited guests are a cross section of homelessness in the nation's capital and will be coming from the Dwelling Place Shelter for Abused Elderly in Southeast and the Blair Shelter and La Casa Shelter, both in Northwest.

"The Pursuit of Happyness" (Columbia Pictures 2006) is the real-life story of respected millionaire Chris Gardner, who, in 1981, was a struggling salesman clinging to his dream of becoming a stockbroker. With his young son by his side, he struggled through homelessness, jail time, tax seizure and other adversities until he landed a lucrative, full-time stockbroker position.

By Marc Fisher |  January 24, 2007; 4:09 PM ET
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This was a recommendation of a homeless person who attended our Ward 1 Townhall Meeting during the transition. We followed up with her the next day and we were able to get a theatre to throw in the movie and snacks the next week. There have been many requests to repeat this and overwhelmingly it was appreciated by folks. Ideas we heard at our Townhall meetings and on the campaign we take very seriously and do our best to implement. Hopefully, most people will understand this as a gesture to bring some of our homeless neigbhors out of the cold and to fulfill a well meaning request.

Sincerely,
Neil Richardson
Deputy Chief of Staff
Executive Office of the Mayor
202-724-7682

Posted by: Neil | January 24, 2007 4:42 PM

Mayor Fenty, do your thing and I hope all goes well...

Posted by: DC Superdave | January 24, 2007 5:16 PM

At first blush, I thought it seemed ridiculous to me -- as you state, a somewhat simplistic approach to dealing with a far more complicated issue. However, in view of Mr. Richardson's statement that it was done at the suggestion of a homeless individual and was well received by a number of our homeless brothers and sisters, it appears the activity was demonstrative of the Mayor's commitment to responsiveness. I do wish it could have been taken a step further, i.e., don't just treat these citizens to a movie and a meal, but round out the day with making sure there were city workers on hand to assist with information they could use -- i.e., shelter and housing; job opportunities; etc. Still, kudos to the new Mayor for listening.

Posted by: E. Robinson | January 24, 2007 5:46 PM

At first blush, I thought it seemed ridiculous to me -- as you state, a somewhat simplistic approach to dealing with a far more complicated issue. However, in view of Mr. Richardson's statement that it was done at the suggestion of a homeless individual and was well received by a number of our homeless brothers and sisters, it appears the activity is demonstrative of the Mayor's commitment to responsiveness. I do wish it will be taken a step further, i.e., don't just treat these citizens to a movie and a meal, but round out the day with making sure there are city workers on hand to assist with information they could use -- i.e., shelter and housing; job opportunities; etc. Kudos to the new Mayor for listening.

Posted by: E. Robinson | January 24, 2007 5:51 PM

At first blush, I thought it seemed ridiculous to me -- as you state, a somewhat simplistic approach to dealing with a far more complicated issue. However, in view of Mr. Richardson's statement that it was done at the suggestion of a homeless individual and was well received by a number of our homeless brothers and sisters, it appears the activity is demonstrative of the Mayor's commitment to responsiveness. I do wish it will be taken a step further, i.e., don't just treat these citizens to a movie and a meal, but round out the day with making sure there are city workers on hand to assist with information they could use -- i.e., shelter and housing; job opportunities; etc. Kudos to the new Mayor for listening.

Posted by: E. Robinson | January 24, 2007 5:52 PM

The two warm meals and a movie sounds well-intended, but the movie selected could have been better thought out. It's like handing a homeless person a lottery ticket and saying "good luck" when you know darn well that the odds of winning are against you.

Posted by: Wishing Good Luck | January 24, 2007 7:46 PM

I wasn't quite sure what to make of this story. Pursuit of Happyness is a true story but is far fetched for the masses. Most of us can not attain that level of success, especially after the trials that the character endured. What the homeless require is the desire, the ability and the sweat equity needed to bring themselves back into normalcy.
I agree that DC workers should be on hand both before and after the movie to give support to our homeless citizens. Let this not be just another feel good attempt to help those who are less fortunate.

Posted by: Maria | January 24, 2007 7:51 PM

who knows? ..a small inspiration can go a long way.

Posted by: adila | January 24, 2007 8:50 PM

Way to go Mayor Fenty - you listened and delivered.

Posted by: Bethesda | January 24, 2007 9:39 PM

As someone who has actually done volunteer working helping the homeless, I feel that this was a wonderful, wonderful thing. Many homeless folks have told me that one of the worst things about being homeless is that everyone thinks that they are helpless and hopeless, and that they want a chance to prove themselves. Seeing the story of someone who took that chance and went on to great things is very inspiring. I feel that Mayor Fenty did something great here. If people would stop looking down their noses at the homeless and see them as equal human beings capable of achievement, a big part of the battle would be won.

Posted by: Alice M. Thornton | January 24, 2007 9:57 PM

I see potential here. Maybe the city could find some modest venue where they showed movies in the wee hours every night as a draw to get the homeless off the streets.

Posted by: Paul | January 24, 2007 10:26 PM

How can inviting people who live out in the cold to come inside for a couple of hours of entertainment, warmth and food be anything but a good thing? How often do people who are not homeless go to a movie theater? The key word is "invited," okay? What's offensive is knee-jerk cynicism.

Posted by: Al W. | January 24, 2007 11:26 PM

I applaud the responsiveness. Suggesting that the Mayor was trying to solve homelessness through this initiative is an assumption- thanks to Neil Richardson for clarifying it is responsiveness to a constituient. Hats off to the Mayor and his staff for this idea.

The suggestion to have staff on hand to assist with issues is a good one though- Mr. Richardson, Mayor Fenty, if you are still out there, please consider providing those who attend the movie instructions on how to reach out to staff who may assist.

Posted by: AlisonH | January 24, 2007 11:32 PM

It's an experiment, and what possible harm could it do?

Will anyone be made worse off by it? No.

Will anyone be made better off? Well, that's the experiment.

Posted by: Kalorama Kat | January 25, 2007 8:01 AM

Hey! I work at a reputable US GOVT AGENCY, and the most we can hope for as a little perk every now and then is a pitiful movie pass! I hope the homeless recipients enjoy the show.

Posted by: Lisa | January 25, 2007 11:57 AM

What are the people on thsi board talking about? E. Robinson wishes that there were job opportunities for homeless people. News flash: Most people that aren't working are not willing to work. The same can be said for shelter and housing. Many of these homeless people have CHOSEN drugs or alcohol over housing. Gentrification has not forced them to the streets. Al W. worries about how often homeless go to the movies. Al this may shock you. But I do not go to the movies that often either. And noone is stepping up to pay for me to go to movies.

Posted by: Nathan | January 25, 2007 12:17 PM

Marc: My comments are going to be from the perspective of being bi-coastal, that is, traveling for the past nine years between the San Francisco Bay Area where I lived for more than 25 years and the District. The District, (and the Washington region for that matter), as it changes demographically and truly becomes more of a "world" city outside of Embassy Row, is also exchanging the historical "good government job" for more of the private sector and tourism. In fact, the District is similar to San Francisco in many aspects due to its size, its draw for tourists and the like. In San Francisco, tourism is the number one industry. Many homeless people in San Francisco are uniquely friendly and will help tourists find Fisherman's Wharf and other locales, because they see many of their benefits and direct assistance flowing from the tourist industry guests and the hotel tax.

As an African American woman who came to the District, over nine years ago, I was at once struck by the stark divide between the federalized, diplomatic, commuter and tourist, "front of town DC" and the localized,anchored,insular, neighborhood-oriented, "back of town DC". Many of the neighborhood-oriented working - class and low-income African Americans in the District,were treated as peripheral, marginalized and even as the "Other" when it came to their role in those "front of town", business and development-oriented decisions, especially around the use of space, homelessness, and seeing themselves in those pictures of over all success and well being. It took me several months to understand that for many African Americans I met, part of the code within the phrase,"Native Washingtonian" meant, "I have a long-time, deep stake in the whole city of Washington, DC, not just the 'front of town DC'" and not until I graduate or the other political party gets into office.

As a former member of the Board of Directors for the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, I have often said that in order for the citizens of the District, especially the low-income and homeless to become an intricate part of the "new District" they must "see" themselves moving forward with the District, not as a victim of the District. For that end, it will mean, in some cases, learning and caring about personal hygiene, learning a degree of public etiquette (especially talking loud, dropping trash and cursing on the buses), and developing a sense of "hustle".

Equally, the District government will be tasked to deliver places to "clean up" with free haircuts and clean clothes-- public etiquette lessons (much like the early 20th C. night schools) and "hustles" which turn low-skills into needed jobs for a growing tourist industry as well as other new technological industries coming into the District. If the first salvo across the bow of homelessness, unemployment and underemployment is the homeless seeing themselves as hopeful in the movie, Pursuit of Happyness, then the District and the Mayor are finally moving light years into solving what has been intractable. In many cases, the intractability of homelessness in DC is partly because the bridge for integrating the homeless and the low-income into the mainstream face of the District, has been missing for so long. Thank you Mayor Fenty and Neil Richardson as well as the good corporate citizen Phoenix Theatres-union Station (Phil Zacheretti, CEO)for taking courageous and innovative steps.
KR Reed, The Rand Reed Group

Posted by: Kathleen Rand Reed, Applied Corporate Anthropologist | January 25, 2007 12:47 PM

It seems a good thing to me, Marc.

Posted by: Mark | January 25, 2007 1:12 PM

DC Mayor a "No Show" for Homeless Day at the Movies
by DC Livers for BlackPressMagazine. com

January 25, 2007 - Washington, DC - (BlackPressMagazine .com) - It was supposed to be an inspiring day filled with hope and opportunities, but instead the Mayor's was full of mixed emotions and disappointments.

About 100 people attended the private screening of the feel good movie, "Pursuit of Happyness," starring Will Smith that was held at the Phoenix Theater in Washington Union Station. Sponsored by the Executive Office of the Mayor and the Department of Health and Human Services, the movie is based on the true story of Chris Gardner, a working class father and husband who later became homeless along with his young son. Gardner managed to become a stockbroker and sold his firm for several million dollars a few years ago.

The press release issued by the Mayor's office stated that Whole Foods Market on P Street NW and one of Chick-Fil-A's Maryland locations would provide breakfast. Instead, the homeless were given bagels and lemonade. I didn't stay for lunch because midway because somehow, it just didn't feel right.

The bagels were hard as rocks, the drinks tasted like the water you get when the nozzle is shared with pink lemonade and on a day where temperatures measured in the 30s, the theater was barely heated. Even the HIV van that was scheduled to provide free testing arrived nearly two hours late. The testing, conducted by Unity Health Care, was originally scheduled for 8 a.m.

What's worse, the mayor was a no show.

As the television crews filmed their every move and print journalists snapped photos of the homeless interacting with the executives at the event, several people in the audience discussed about why the mayor hadn't shown up and why they had to wait so long before the film started. Throughout the movie, journalists nursed their ringing cell phones and darted out to take important calls, evidence that we weren't there to help just to work.

"The goal of an event like this is to continue to make inroads into the homeless population and given them access to the tools they need to overcome homelessness," Mayor Fenty said in a printed statement issued to the media at the event.

It would have been an incredible inspiration to see the new mayor address the city's homeless in this setting, but it was one of many things that would have made the event better.

Oddly, although the Mayor didn't show up for the homeless, he is confirmed to attend and speak at tonight's swanky reception for the launch of the Africa Channel at which gift bags filled with goodies from Tyler Perry, Discovery Channel and others will be handed out to the upscale guests.

Since I had already seen the movie, I knew what was coming next: The scenes of the soup kitchens, sleeping in bathrooms on floors soaked with urine and worse. I couldn't watch people living the experience just for the sake of watching to see how they reacted. It just didn't feel right.

Some slept as the movie played, but most were actively engaged. Every time a homeless person was shown in the movie, the audience moaned. They talked to the screen in hopes of giving the character advice. They even laughed knowing laughs when the character had to resort to creative means to acquire things without money. But, the theater grew eerily quiet when the character lost his home and experienced other hardships. It was like they weren't watching a movie but reliving their lives on the big screen.

But some feel this could be a new beginning for the homeless in Washington.

"We thought this was important not because of where it is, but because of what it is," said Phil Zacheretti, who owns the Phoenix Theatre. "That area of the public is overlooked quite a bit. It's just something small that we can do, but I'm awfully glad that we can help in this way."

The agencies plan to use today's event as a jumping off point to tackle the heavy issue, which will effect the 18, 394 homeless people living in Washington, DC, according to a DC Department of Human Services report issued last year. The agencies provided literature on upcoming job fair for the homeless and health options. Nearly all of the attendees were men in their 40s and 50s but all but a few where African American. They represented the Dwelling Place Shelter for Abused Elderly, the Blair Shelter, the New York Avenue Shelter and La Casa Shelter.

While it's too soon to tell if the mayor's plan to eradicate homelessness will be successful; one thing is for sure: Nothing will get done unless he decides to show up.

Copyright D. Livers 2007 All Rights Reserved.
Source: http://www.blackpressmagazine. com

Posted by: Black Press Magazine.com | January 26, 2007 7:13 PM

Soooo, what has Black Press Magazine done for the homeless in DC? Did they offer jobs for the homeless? Did they offer any social help? Maybe they can hand out copies of their publication to the homeless. At least the homeless will have something to wipe with.

Posted by: Hmm | January 27, 2007 9:20 PM

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