Jun. 24, 2020 9:18 am

For people experiencing homelessness, watching television is a meaningful act

Paying attention to those TV choices can help social service workers forge connection, says Andrew Huff.

Actors Danny Pino and Mariska Hargitay on the set of Law and Order: SVU, "Missing Pieces" episode, September 20, 2011.

(Photo by Daniel Fleming, https://www.flickr.com/photos/danielpfleming/, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Since late March, the guests in Bethesda Project’s Church Shelter Program have been sheltering-in-place at Old First Reformed United Church of Christ.

As part of our COVID-19 staff rotation, I supervise the shelter three days a week, meaning I’ve had a chance to see up close how chronically homeless men shelter-in-place. You may not be surprised to hear that it involves a lot of television — but you may be surprised to hear what our guests are watching on TV. With that in mind, I spent a rainy day at the shelter watching TV alongside them. Here’s what I learned.

The day begins with some 1990s nostalgia as the men have chosen to watch several episodes of Touched By An Angel — the inspirational Christian series about a guardian angel named Monica and her mentor Tess.

As it happens, I grew up in a conservative Christian household where Touched By An Angel was the only television show I was allowed to watch until I was 10. My parents had hoped it would teach me moral values, which it did — while also teaching me some very perplexing things about race.

For example, out of more than 200 episodes, the one I remember most is the 1999 episode “Black Like Monica” (in which Rosa Parks had a guest role).  Roma Downey — the white actress who plays Monica — wears blackface when the script calls for her character to be turned into a mortal Black woman and sent to resolve a lynching in a small town. At one point, while being chased through the woods by two white men who plan to kill her, Monica prays for God to make her white again — literally pleading “Make me white again, make me white again, make me white again.” Her prayer is answered just in time, and the men let her go alive.

By the end of the episode, white Monica has somehow, all by herself, achieved racial reconciliation.

Throughout the series, Touched By An Angel makes the bold assertion that, ultimately, people are trustworthy, they will go out of their way to protect you, and they will do the right thing.

What the show doesn’t elaborate on (or perhaps doesn’t care to) is that historically only white people have had the privilege of believing this vision of the world to be true, and have usually only believed it about each other.

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The predominantly Black, impoverished, and chronically homeless men in our shelter understand that no, people do not always mean well; that no, people cannot always be trusted; and that sometimes, people will actually go out of their way to harm you.

More often than not, unless you are white, wealthy, and stably housed, this world is a damn minefield. The men in our shelter and on our streets know that. They are in that position precisely because life has not worked out. For them, there were no guardian angels. Their prayers were not answered. They have walked the minefield alone.

Yet while Touched By An Angel is on in the shelter, we are all watching it in a mood that I can only describe as fascination.

There is something deeply compelling about a picture of the world that isn’t a minefield. There is something mesmerizing, almost to the point of vertigo, about a world in which poverty, adultery, and, yes, even racism can be resolved in less than an hour. This is a vision of a world that is emotionally safe and nurturing — a world where prayers really are answered, every single time.

This is not the kind of world that the men in our shelter can easily believe in. But as the credits roll, one of them seems to speak for the room when he calls out “Man, don’t you wish life could be that smooth?”

After lunch, the channel is changed and we suddenly hear it — dun dun — and we all know what it means: Law and Order: SVU.

The men are gripped by this show for the next several hours and they attend to it like it’s a live boxing match. All things considered, it’s a very relevant choice. People experiencing homelessness are more likely than the general population to have a criminal record, and the majority of chronically homeless adults have a history of incarceration.

Beyond that, research has also found that homeless men are more likely to have experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse than the general population. At the same time, some men experience homelessness because they have committed sexual offenses. A criminal record with these offenses complicates the housing process by prohibiting these men from living in certain locations or receiving certain housing subsidies.

Like many people I know, I’ve seen every episode of Law and Order: SVU. But as I watch it in the shelter space, I’m reminded that what is so striking about this show isn’t the crime or trauma itself. It’s the way we repeatedly hear people in authority say to victims, “It’s not your fault” and “You are not alone” — and they say it with such conviction, sincerity, and warmth.

In 2018, Roxane Gay described a similar quality while reflecting on the show in an opinion piece for The New York Times. She writes: “The victims don’t always find justice, but they are, more often than not, believed by the S.V.U. detectives. Their stories are heard and respected. Justice may be elusive, but on the show, it exists within the realm of possibility.” For many, the show is a vision of law enforcement as we want it to be.

As I watch the show with our guests, I find myself thinking back to my first job out of college, working as a case manager at a South Boston shelter.

I’m recalling one of my first mornings there in particular. I was zipping around the cafeteria pouring coffee, taking breakfast orders, and wondering how the hell my mother worked for years as a waitress on rollerblades. When I spilled an entire tray of waffles onto the floor, my supervisor redirected me to chat with some of the guests instead.

I moved towards the first table I saw; there was only one other person there, a woman in her 50s. “Hi,” I said as I sat down. “I’m the new case manager.” To which she dryly responded: “And you spilled my waffles.”

I muttered some kind of apology, then awkwardly asked her, “So… what brings you by here?” She sipped her coffee, considered the question, and gave me the recap of a brutal, decades-long trauma history. Then she looked at me, waiting for my response, and there was something harsh, yet justified, in her eyes that seemed to say: “Your move, Mr. New Case Manager.”

Of course, I had no idea what to say. A life of white privilege meant I had never heard a trauma history like that before. So I thought, “Well, what would Detective Benson from S.V.U say?” But even then I didn’t know. So I thought, “Well, what would Detective Benson do?” How would she hold herself in this moment, or nod her head; what kind of body language would she have? But again, I just didn’t know.

So finally I said, “I’m not sure what’s the right thing to say here… I’m literally thinking to myself what would Olivia Benson from Law and Order: SVU. do, if that means anything.”

At that moment, this woman’s eyes lit up. “I love that show,” she said. And for the next half hour we talked, forging the beginning of what would become a productive case management relationship that year.

When you walk into a shelter and see the TV playing, or see people watching shows on their phones, it is very easy to dismiss it as idle time. But for people experiencing homelessness, watching television is a meaningful act. For many, it is one of the few forms of leisure they have access to, and a rare opportunity to take their mind off their circumstances.

What’s more, whether it’s on a phone or on a television set, the choice of what to watch may be one of the few real choices they have in daily life. That makes it one that is hotly contested and sometimes violently defended. I’ve seen several fights break out in shelter over who controls the TV remote, what show is on, and whether or when to change the channel.

For those of us who work in social services, it matters that we pay attention to what our guests, residents, and clients watch on TV. It gives us an opportunity to speak in terms they recognize and value.

It’s a chance to consider their take on the world, and a pathway to meaningful connection.

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