Fifteen million people have watched the video makeover of Jim Wolf, from scruffy homeless veteran to well-groomed man in a suit. In 2 minutes and 50 seconds, a time-lapse transformation emerges of a fashionably bearded man ready for work. Wolf felt grateful, his sister said, for the global attention that drew atta-boys and job offers; he vowed a new direction and joined a Grand Rapids, Mich., AA group. The world cheered.
The YouTube video was posted Nov. 6, and was a feel-good viral sensation by Veterans Day. That same day Wolf, 54, buckled.
“After the video and saying he was going to go to Alcoholics Anonymous,” said Robin Thomas, a former police officer and Wolf’s sister, “Jim continued living his life on the street, getting drunk … got put in jail, got out.”
That Veterans Day, Thomas found her brother and took him home for a week, where he did his laundry and she sheltered him from a media throng that included national shows like “Inside Edition.” She had him do work at her Estate Sale Warehouse, and rake leaves at home, paying him with a used bike from her consignment store, supplying him with a means of transportation. He stayed sober a week, always respectful of her and her family, but he soon wanted to go check on his possessions stashed around town and spent the weekend around his downtown street haunts. She knew jail would soon follow. On Sunday, Nov. 17, Wolf was arrested at a Burger King for public nuisance and pleaded guilty the next day, Thomas said.
While the video flushed viewers with good cheer, it unintentionally glossed over a complex yet familiar scenario.
“Wolf’s rapid reversion happened because the underlying issues weren’t addressed,” said Dr. David Sack, an addiction specialist and CEO of Elements Behavioral Health. “You can transform the outside in a few hours, but transforming the inside is a lifelong effort. A makeover may dress it up and give it a prettier face, but addiction is an ugly disease.”
Any addict would tell you: the hardest part is staying sober. Homelessness is equally complex and usually braided with mental health and addiction disease.
“Dealing with homelessness is a lifelong battle; it’s something that you have to overcome,” said Cindy Longyne, communications manager for Mel Trotter Ministries, the oldest homeless shelter in Grand Rapids where Wolf has stayed before. “A new outfit is a wonderful thing, and it can encourage confidence. That’s one step, out of many steps to be taken.”
The number of veterans such as Wolf among the nation’s homeless population is particularly disturbing. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans and the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there are 62,619 homeless veterans on any given night — equal to the population of Utica, N.Y. About twice that many will experience homelessness over the course of one year. Of Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans, some 12,700 were homeless in 2010, and their needs for mental health, house and job help risk further overwhelming the VA system entrusted to help them.
Wolf Sought Help for Addiction Years Ago
Further, the NCHV reports, 13% of the country’s adult homeless population are military veterans, and 70% of them are addicts. Half of them have serious mental illness and are over 50 years old. And the number of opiate addicts is soaring, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting. Wolf sought addiction help from the VA about five or six years ago, his sister said. He also used Mel Trotter Ministry’s shelter, and daytime center, where the homeless can shower, watch TV, find computers and get help with their resumes. There’s even a dry-out room for the inebriated to be “nursed back, basically, to consciousness,” Longyne said. The center serves 500 meals a day.
With so many destitute veterans on the streets, it’s understandable that such an uplifting story would capture the public’s imagination.
Enter Rob Bliss, a young Grand Rapids man deft at drawing the media to his string of local events such as zombie walks and chalk art festivals. He told local media that he wanted to make a difference on Veterans Day and enlisted hair stylists and others to help him capture a homeless vet’s reboot. Bliss told mlive.com that he went to Degage Ministries, which specializes in helping addicts, for help finding a fitting and needy veteran. Wolf was chosen and agreed to be featured, although his sister said he is has no computer or familiarity with the Internet.
Her brother, James Allen Wolf, was born eight years before she was, so she doesn’t remember any childhood trauma per se. Jim and a buddy joined the U.S. Army at a recruiting station when they were 18. He saw no combat. Upon discharge, he enrolled in the National Guard in about 1980, and remained until 1990 or ’91, Thomas said. In that decade, he lived with their parents, and their mother suffered a series of heart attacks by age 47. The fifth one killed her, and it was Jim who found her collapsed in the house in 1990. She later died at the hospital.
“He’s been overcome by that,” Thomas said of her brother, who was 31 at the time. “He never got over that.”
She wasn’t sure where Wolf was stationed, but said that he was called up and his National Guard company was sent out of state and put “in a holding pattern,” but he was not sent overseas or to combat. He never married or had children and she’s not aware of a long-term job. Her brother lived with their dad until he died in 2000, and it was after that when Jim had to move out and became homeless.
“We were born and raised Catholic, he’s very Christian,” Thomas said of her brother, who’s wearing a crucifix on a chain in the YouTube video. “He has all that faith in him; he just has the devil in him with the damn alcohol.”
Wolf’s latest of many arrests, for misdemeanor trespassing and creating a disturbance, was the downside of too much attention. There were cries that a vulnerable and booze-addled person had been used for a publicity stunt. But Robin Thomas said her brother recognized the good in all of it.
“He realized it was kind of a marketing thing for the ministry, and was really happy that they were able to raise a significant amount of money to help homeless people” from the publicity, Thomas said. “He realizes that he could have been any guy in that video. So he’s pretty proud of that, and he understands all the people who have come forward with goodness and generosity.
A Cleveland, Ohio, group of men that owns 21 car dealerships offered him a job. A group of men in Los Angeles, and countless others, set up prayer networks.
“All kinds of people were reaching out from all over the country, and the world,” Wolf’s sister said. “He understands the help and doesn’t want to disappoint anybody.”
As the Wolf family knows, relapse is not uncommon in the addiction treatment process. So the same man who led Wolf’s makeover got back to work, finding a shelter that would help the veteran of the Army and National Guard. Late last week, Thomas said her attorney persuaded a judge to release her brother on the fifth day of his 10-day sentence. He went directly to a detox that Bliss arranged. He will remain there for 90 days, and, by that point, his sister expects that subsidized housing provided by a non-profit in Grand Rapids will be available.
Families and doctors who treat addiction know recovery is not a sprint, but rather a marathon.
“It requires long-term treatment, counseling and support, and falling back into old patterns is not a sign of failure,” Dr. Sack said. “Relapse is part of the disease, often a part that takes the addict one step closer to long-term recovery.”
Photos: At top, Jim Allen Wolf in his U.S. Army uniform, looking barely of age. His family thinks he is perhaps 18 here, but not more than 21 or 22. In the second photo, Wolf is 10 or 12. Photos courtesy Robin Thomas