Ted Williams: A bit of tarnish on his golden rise from homelessness

The celebrated rise of Ted Williams, the man with the golden voice, hits a stumbling block, and he may be heading to rehab. His story illustrates the many hazards that can lead to homelessness.

Richard Drew/AP
Ted Williams, a homeless man from Columbus, Ohio, whose deep, velvety voice and touching story prompted an outpouring of sympathy and job offers from across the country, is interviewed after his appearance on the NBC "Today" television show on Jan. 6.

Homelessness is back in the news. But in contrast with this past week’s feel-good story about the formerly homeless Ted Williams being lifted from a life on the streets into a home, job, and instant fame, this week’s narratives pull back that media curtain on a darker side.

Mr. Williams was taken to a Los Angeles police station for questioning after a Hollywood hotel altercation with his daughter that reportedly was so loud that an employee phoned the police. There were also allegations of substance abuse.

On the other coast, the Washington-based Alliance to End Homelessness released a report showing a three-percent rise in homelessness nationwide. Says Alliance president Nan Roman, both events are sobering reminders of the deeper problems driving people to live on the streets.

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“When someone is lifted from a life on the streets like Mr. Williams, we all cheer and are happy for him,” says Ms. Roman. But, she adds, “all that attention and celebrity is almost always focused on the anecdote, not the real solutions to the problem of people being homeless.”

According to a press release issued Wednesday by the “Dr. Phil Show,” Williams has agreed to enter a rehab facility “for his alcohol and drug dependency.” A one-on-one interview with Dr. Phil will air Thursday. The press release says the decision was taken “with his family’s support.” His ex-wife and five family members will also appear on the show to discuss what they say are his ongoing substance abuse problems.

The media rise and fall of Ted Williams is an all-too-familiar story to Andrew Bales, CEO of Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles. While he appreciates the fact that Williams puts a face on homelessness, he says that having gifts is not the man’s problem.

“My first reaction was that we have at least 4 men with that very amazing radio voice, others with tremendous singing talent, a brilliant comedian, and others with incredible gifts, but as Ted said, a drinking problem has been his downfall,” he says. That is why the mission focuses instead on what Mr. Bales calls “Life Transformation, including a 12-step program. When lives are transformed, gifts will shine.”

Instead of the celebrity frenzy that enveloped Williams after his YouTube video – captured on a Columbus, Ohio street corner – went viral, Bales says the recovering alcoholic would be much better served with a low-profile transition that included a team to help him handle both the money and new opportunities and “maybe even a chaplain on his side.”

That’s because, as he points out, the issues that brought him to the street in the first place are not going to magically disappear when the national media spotlight turns on. In fact, he suggests, that glare has most certainly not helped Williams adjust to his new circumstances. People caught in the celebrity crush have little understanding of how fleeting that embrace can be, he says.

Bales says the “Today Show” was quick to rush Williams on the air when the story first broke, but Bales feels the host, Matt Lauer, was equally quick to distance himself when the new allegations broke, calling Williams “that formerly homeless man with the golden voice.”

Instant fame can be every bit as addictive as a drug, points out sociologist BJ Gallagher, author of “It's Never Too Late to Be What You Might Have Been.”

Even folks without a history of substance abuse can wilt under the pressure of such attention, she says. Look no further than that other viral video sensation, Scottish singer Susan Boyle, who ended up in the hospital for mental exhaustion after her rush to fame.

Like many who held their breath as the Ted Williams saga unfolded last week, Ms. Gallagher says, “I didn’t think it would last, at least not so perfectly, but I didn’t think it would come down so quickly.”

Genuine solutions to homelessness must include tackling the issues that drove a person out of a stable home, says Ms. Gallagher. But those are so much harder to wrap into a neat narrative, she points out, because real life is so much messier than the fairy tale. “We are a very optimistic people and we like our happy endings,” she says.

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