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A Word From Jerry… On The Soloist

May 28, 2009
Jerry Sandvig, Executive Director of Phoenix Rescue Mission

Jerry Sandvig, Executive Director of Phoenix Rescue Mission

A movie review, now that is new territory for me. The movie in review is “THE SOLOIST,” and you will understand my reason for writing this.

This true story focuses on the relationship between a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and a homeless man whose life becomes a compelling story that must be researched and told.

The L. A. Times reporter is Steve Lopez played by Robert Downey Jr., and the homeless man Nathanial Ayers is played by Jamie Foxx.

The reporter is first drawn to the homeless man on the streets when he hears music that is being played on a violin with only two strings. The two men bond and as Mr. Lopez learns something of Mr. Ayers past, he writes a column and wins the hearts of the community who want to know more about the musically gifted homeless man. A reader actually ships her cello, which is Mr. Ayers’ instrument of choice, to Mr. Lopez with instructions to give it to Mr. Ayers.

Mr. Lopez’s research of Ayers’ past reveals that he was a truly gifted young man that studied at Julliard in New York. As he was reaching great levels of understanding and performance, he confronted great confusion in his mind with “voices” and a dissolving consciousness of his place and time in society. Eventually, he dropped out of Julliard and out of life as well. Lopez found him under an overpass in Los Angeles, no longer a teenager, and a long way from home.

Mr. Lopez, who by profession is a communicator, found communication with Ayers a difficult task. What he did learn and report went beyond a heart tugging story. Other professionals in the community wanted to help Ayers display his genius and become established in the music community of L.A. Time and again Ayers was provided coaching and eventually a chance to perform in concert, but then, walked out and returned to the LAMB center, a homeless shelter run by the city of Los Angeles.

Mr. Lopez is finally discouraged since he had such hopes for Mr. Ayers. He recognized and witnessed his genius on the cello, especially when he could play music by Beethoven which was an obvious passion of his.

Lopez’s discouragement came because no matter how hard he tried to confirm Mr. Ayers’ life, all communication was as if in a mix-master as Ayers continued to talk to the “voices” and wander into this other world of his.

As Lopez spends more time at the LAMB center meeting the administrators and some of the other clients, he becomes more enlightened to the mental illness side of homelessness. There are a lot of colorful people and experiences that bring some good humor to the despair of the street people of L.A.

In the end Lopez accepts that Ayers will likely always be in his world of voices, and that at times he will play music worthy of the angels, albeit under the overpass. His hopes for Ayers to reach the pinnacle of his genius and public recognition have now vanished. Gratefully he remains a friend, yet now he understands the mental challenges that will always haunt his friend.

Throughout the film I think the audience is hoping that Mr. Ayers will suddenly break out of his affliction and become a blossoming artist generated from his budding phenom recognition in his teenage years. He never attains the success that developed in the movie “August Rush” in which another gifted young man ends up conducting his own symphony in Central Park. By the way, this is a good family movie for all ages.

Why I have taken the opportunity to review this film is because the population viewed at the LAMB center represents Hollywood emphasizing a part of homelessness that is not at all of this magnitude of mentally challenged people. The movie shows a crowd of mean spirited and deranged people that are not a majority of those living as homeless on our streets.

At the Phoenix Rescue Mission, we give care and attention to all people who come to us for all the services we offer. About 30% of those from the street have some mental challenges. Some indeed have the characteristics of Mr. Ayers which is schizophrenia. Many we meet have been treated and as long as they stay on their medications they can function pretty well. At the mission we see that people in these conditions get help from agencies that make this work the main focus of what they do.

Therefore, as our volunteers, staff and board will attest, the mission is not a scary place to come for a visit, to serve a meal or take a tour. Most of our clients in the shelter are working men or seeking work.

Our greatest concern is the effect of street drugs and alcohol on about 75% of the people we serve. The mission has housed men with failed businesses, careers in engineering, the law, professors and even an Astrophysicist who found hope and healing in our facility. Our year long Residential Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program is very successful. The only challenge here is that the program is limited by our building size and we need a larger facility to serve 80 or so men.

Even though “The Soloist” doesn’t represent the typical face of homelessness we see each day it does bring our attention to a serious problem with the mentally ill. Schizophrenia is just one of several afflictions we encounter. The people with this disease hear voices, think people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts and plotting to harm them. What an unintended life for one of God’s children. To read more about Schizophrenia check out www.schizophrenia.com.

I hope you enjoyed this view from my seat at the theater.

Jerry Sandvig
Executive Director
Phoenix Rescue Mission and Changing Lives Center

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