Friday, August 29, 2014

Miley Cyrus And The Reality Of Homeless Youth

Miley Cyrus is mad at the media. And Miley Cyrus is right. Cyrus brought Jesse Helt, a homeless 22-year-old, as her date to the MTV Video Music Awards. She’d met Helt at My Friend’s Place, an L.A. center that aids homeless youth in the city. 

When Cyrus won Video of the Year, she sent Helt up in her stead. He gave a speech about the plight of homeless youth and directed viewers to Cyrus’s Facebook page, where they could learn more about how to help those in need.

Helt had moved to L.A. from Oregon and was trying to pursue a modeling career without a place to live.

Last night, the Associated Press reported that there’s a warrant out for Helt’s arrest in Oregon: he’d been arrested on charges of criminal mischief, criminal trespass and burglary when he was 18 years old. From the AP story, which ran under the headline “Miley Cyrus’ Date Wanted By Oregon Police“:

“According to court records, he broke into the apartment of a man who had been selling what Helt believed to be bad marijuana.

Helt, who was 18 at the time, pleaded guilty to criminal mischief and criminal trespass, both misdemeanors, and was sentenced to 30 days in jail and probation.

The arrest warrant was issued in November 2011 after he violated probation…

Polk County Director of Community Corrections Martin Silbernagel said Tuesday officials are trying to locate Helt and arrest him. He said Helt repeatedly failed to meet with his probation officer.”

Since the story broke, media attention on Helt and his VMA appearance has focused almost entirely on his criminal record. His mugshots have been making the rounds, and the always-tasteful Daily Mirror accused him of looking “very different” in his mugshots “to his suited and booted appearance at the VMAs and it seems he didn’t tell the full story of his background.”Crushable’s headline dismissed Helt as “Fake Homeless” and put quotation marks around the word homeless whenever using it to refer to Helt throughout the story. Reading these stories, one gets the sense that Cyrus failed to properly vet her date, that she should have found a “better” homeless guy to make the speech.

Of course it’s fair for news organizations to report on the fact that there’s a warrant out for Helt’s arrest. But the idea that it is somehow a surprise that a homeless young person has a criminal record just doesn’t make any sense.As the National Health Care for the Council reported in a 2012 policy brief, “Homelessness contributes to the risk for incarceration, and incarceration contributes to higher risks of homelessness. Approximately 15-percent of jail inmates had been homeless in the year prior to their incarceration and 54-percent of homeless individuals report spending time in a correctional facility at some point in their lives.” That he has a criminal past, or even a criminal present, hardly makes Helt an exceptional case study of a homeless individual. The surprising story would be if Helt had somehow wound up homeless after spending the first two decades of his life having no problems or hardships whatsoever.

James Beck is the development director at Sasha Bruce Youthwork, which operates the only youth-specific shelter in Washington D.C. He provided some context for Helt’s criminal history via email. “Homelessness leaves unaccompanied youth in a desperate situation, leading some to become involved in criminal activity,” he wrote.

“Many unaccompanied youth resort to illegal activity as part of their strategy for
survival. For example, unaccompanied youth seeking shelter might break into an abandoned building, while youth seeking income to meet basic needs might sell drugs. However, while homeless youth often engage in criminal activity, research shows they are more likely to be the victims of crime rather than the perpetrators.”

Cyrus sent out a series of tweets about Helt:

The coverage of Helt is, in a way, an echo of stories on Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager who was shot multiple times and killed in Ferguson. I’m particularly reminded of the release of security footage of Brown stealing a box of cigars moments before his murder and the now-notorious New York Times story that referred to Brown as “no angel” who “dabbled in drugs and alcohol,” “had taken to rapping in recent months,” and “got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.” As if he somehow deserved what he got because of these minor, even laughable (“taken to rapping”) infractions. 

The most cynical take on Cyrus and Helt could turn out to be true — that Helt is just launching a modeling career, that Cyrus just wants to look like a good person and get positive press — and it wouldn’t actually change the most important part of the story. 

There are still more than one-and-a-half million homeless youths in the U.S.


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