My cause to help a homeless friend helps more during the pandemic
I previously wrote about my friend Venka. She’s been homeless for over a year, living in her car with her partner in homelessness (Will) and Will’s Chinese Crested Powderpuff (Andy the dog). A word I coined about a decade ago became our verbal rallying flag: heroteer.
Is it silly? Perhaps. But does it work? Oh hell YES!
Our understood paradigms for causes include non-profits and crowdfunding platforms. I promoted Venka’s GoFundMe on my podcast, and gave when I could. A year came and went. Venka remains homeless. My efforts were not enough.
I grew up born-again Christian, a lifestyle choice (for adults) that demands one “tithe” or give 10% to the church. The church then doles out “charity” … with religious strings attached. Naturally. I couldn’t help but notice the patronizing advice, the tone-deaf directives, the religious evangelism clouding Venka’s efforts to get help. Venka feels like the soldier at the end of the film 1917. And yet she’s got people coming at her from all quarters with their Big Ideas. Venka needs money and a home. Period. That simple focus seems to elude so many claiming to help.
As the Son of Elmer Gantry’s Bitch, I struggle to justify supporting organizations that may find themselves in the tragically hilarious position of canceling a faith healing service … due to a health pandemic. For those with the means, a single Venmo transaction brings Venka and Will inside to a home of their own. I’m no Jeff Bezos. I can’t afford to hire accountants and attorneys who scientifically determine how I can legally pay no taxes. I can’t afford to drive a luxury SUV to Costco to stock up on pallets of toilet paper. I’m a not-quite-middle-class working artist. How do I help?
But wait, I’m an artist! I have SWAG: a poem I wrote, as well as a citation and a headshot related to my Lt. Frank character. I anticipate future swag, such as tee shirts and perhaps a Lt. Frank calendar. Why not offer gift cards for my current and future swag? That way when someone purchases a $5 gift card, I could send Venka $2.50, enabling her to buy a cup of Earl Grey tea, the beverage of choice of Jean-Luc Picard (Venka and I share a love a Star Trek). That tea is not only a beverage to hydrate and warm her. It’s also a passport. Now she’s a paying customer, with seating and bathroom privileges that are often a challenge for the homeless to obtain. Given Venka’s various health conditions, quick and easy access to the facilities is not merely a convenience. It’s a necessity.
Everybody wins with the Heroteer model! Venka gets funds. (She knows what to do with them — I never tell her how to spend it.) Fans of my art get swag. I get to sell my art. As a working artist, this is a sustainable model for me. Especially now as my busking characters Lt. Frank and Hollywood Cap are on strike against Covid-19. And Central Casting is not permitting photo updates. It’s been 6 months since my last, so I’m now practically invisible to casting directors who’ve been routinely booking me.
Since December I’ve found 36 Heroteers. I’m looking for a total of 3,000 at a minimum of $5 each. The average purchase has been $25. And current Heroteers are purchasing more. Since Venka only gets less than $20 a month in food stamps, it’s like she’s gotten more than two months' worth of the $200 CalFresh used to be. Heroteer is patching a few holes in our American “safety net”. I’d say Heroteer is working better than expected.
In early February I worked on a film for a week of 12–14 hour days. I looked forward to reaching out to more friends about Heroteer the following week. But then I got sick. Probably not Covid-19. I had no fever. And since my Medi-Cal was canceled (I make too much?!), no option to get any treatment. Low energy, coughing, congestion, I chalked it up to a bad cold. I haven’t had one of those in a while. I stopped working and self-isolated (before it was a thing). Rested and healed. My energy returned a week ago.
Then coronavirus happened. Fear developed around me. My singer-songwriter friend Kaiulani has a wonderfully refreshing 6-minute response. (I should really have her on my podcast. Hmmm …) My next thought? No Fear. Heroteer. But now more people need help.
And the stakes are higher.
My artist friends share their gigs and jobs are getting canceled. I know from experience with the first 36 Heroteers that there are people of just enough means out there who can help. What if I expand Heroteer to help my fellow creatives? I am.
Today I’ve introduced “Double Down”. When someone purchases a Mark Roman Empire gift card for $5, I ask if they wish to “double down” for another $5, with which they get swag or gift certificates of my fellow Heroteer creatives and small business Heroteers. Not everyone will double down. And the primary mission is helping Venka. But I’m confident enough new and existing Heroteers will.
Just today the first one did! A $20 Heroteer purchase (from a pre-existing Heroteer) doubled down to $40. Venka got $10. I got $10 to keep growing Heroteer (oh, and buy groceries!). My buddy, fellow busker and Heroteer Hollywood Wolverine got $20 for an autographed photo I’ll be shipping to our intrepid first “Double Down” Heroteer (who also gets $20 in Mark Roman Empire eGift Card credit). We just lost Hollywood Ironman. Which means we lost a friend, a fellow busker and a fellow Hollywood Avenger. And Hollywood Wolverine lost a roommate. Heroteer Double Down just helped a fellow creative. The expanded Heroteer works!
A Heroteer Double Down can also be donated to the prize pool for “Cards for Heroteers”. (As my 2 year-long Saturday in Vegas to develop Lt. Frank still haunts me, the casino theme apparently continues.) “Cards for Heroteers” debuted last week. My podcast guest, Playboy Bunny and stand-up comic Melanie Neumann drew the first winner, Heroteer #20 “anonymous”. (Heroteers choose a “public” name for the WHO page, including the option to remain anonymous. #20 has since chosen to reveal herself: Helen Ebon.). After a year hiatus, I’ve brought the podcast back. Whether I have a guest or not, I’m releasing an episode a week. Which means at least one “Cards for Heroteers” winner each week.
So there it is! Maybe it’s the Eagle Scout in me. Maybe I’m a guy of a certain age, liberated from the religious and sales manager voices from my past. Maybe it’s that I survived Hillsdale College, expulsion as a student editor, the FBI’s Subversives List, being ruled a celebrity by a federal judge, and the Dick and Marilyn Show (my childhood). Whatever it is, I feel perfectly poised for this moment.
Let’s Leave No Human Outside. I’m seeking Heroteers. How about you?