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Joel John Roberts Headshot

Homeless Neighbors Are Not Like Us, Some Are Better

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In this stubborn reclining economy, many of our neighbors are falling through the cracks of middle-class living ending up sleeping on friend's couches or even worse, becoming homeless. In the past couple of years, the people walking through the front doors of the Los Angeles homeless programs I oversee would have shocked me years ago.

The family of seven who lived in their van for a year. The investment banker who sat on my board only to lose his job and his apartment. The guy who volunteered at our program only to end up asking for housing assistance. They all became homeless.

My colleagues comment over and over again, "Homelessness could happen to anyone. They are just like you and me."

After trying to break the stereotype of homelessness -- the inebriated homeless man walking down Skid Row -- those of us who are advocates are realizing that the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression has caused most Americans to reconsider their image of homelessness.

Mother and child. Middle-aged executive who has worked all his life. Young professional with a graduate degree. College student at this country's prestigious university. They all have been homeless.

Our homeless neighbors are just like us. Well, many of them.

This month, America is mourning the loss of a songwriter who many say composed the soundtrack of millions of people's lives. Nick Ashford wrote songs that have transcended generations. Marvin Gaye's "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing," Diana Ross's "Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand," and Gaye's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough".

Ashford's amazing success with the music greats of his time and the staying power of his fame overshadowed a heart-wrenching part of his personal history. At one time, Ashford was homeless in New York.

Back then, if you and I had seen Ashford while he was homeless, we would not have been able to say he is like us. Because he wasn't. Ashford was a musical genius. Compared to him, we are just average music fans who barely know how to use our iPods.

He may have experienced homelessness, and may have even reflected an old stereotypical image of homelessness, but Ashford was not like us. He went on to become a musical legend, so when he died every major news outlet in the country honored him.

I wonder how many other geniuses are roaming the streets of America, caught in an episode of homelessness?