Rock gods have the same awkward interactions with panhandlers that you do.
U2 guitarist The Edge, producer of Friday night's MTV special on youth homelessness, "The Break," says he, too, sometimes finds himself at a loss about how to help people on the street.
"There's that awful thing where you realize there's nothing you can do, right at that moment, so you kind of pretend they're not there," he told TheWrap. "And I think for somebody who's homeless, particularly someone who's panhandling, that's the most emotionally difficult thing, is to become like a non-person. Like you literally do not exist to someone walking by.
"And I understand both sides," he added. "The person passing by just doesn't know what to do. So they end up blanking the homeless person. And it's a terrible thing to see happen. I've been guilty of it myself from time to time."
The musician and activist, who says he usually does give money to the homeless people he encounters, has spent three decades working on social causes like African famine relief as a member of his band. U2, the biggest touring act of 2011, has campaigned for causes and organizations from Make Poverty History to Amnesty International.
With "The Break," the Edge and host Anne Mahlum, an advocate for the homeless, profile three young people on the street and try to help them rebuild their lives. They include a woman who was involved in abusive relationships, a gifted drummer who suffered a downward spiral, and a woman who left home because her parents objected to her lesbianism. The Edge also wrote a song for the show, "There's No Home Like Place."
The Edge said U2 is "slowly starting to think about work," but the band is in no rush to get back to the studio, despite a wealth of material. Instead, it's listening to a lot of music. After we talked about the special, he told us what he's playing lately.
What interested you about this project?
It was something that just inspired me early on. I was questioning myself about some of my own ways of relating or not relating to homeless people, and it just started me on kind of a journey to answer some questions for myself. And in the process I started thinking about the way that the homeless are really completely marginalized, and in many cases disenfranchised.
They suffer through a lot of stereotypical views about how they got there. What I've learned is there is a myriad of reasons why someone might become homeless. No two stories are the same. I thought that it was time that there was a little bit more of an intelligent sense of inquiry into this problem. It's particularly serious at the moment with the economic downturn.
I thought if we could really make a difference in somebody's life with an intervention, it could be a reality TV kind of thing that would be very uplifting and inspiring, instead of making people view the show and feel better because they see a lot of bad behavior. But also if somebody's in a position of being homeless, in could be hopefully an inspiring thing to see.
Story continues after the trailer for "The Break":
The question of how to help is a particularly interesting dilemma for you. As part of U2 and singularly, you're one of the most approached people in the world to help contribute to causes. And you're also in a unique position to help a lot of people. How do you choose what you're going to do?
I think it's down to feeling like you can move the needle, that you can make a difference. And of course we can't do everything, because then you'd be so diluted that there wouldn't be any kind of impact to your support or involvement. That's an important thing.
And the things that inspire you and the things that you feel moved to become involved with. As with Bono and his Africa work. He happened to be in Africa at a very pivotal time in his life and witnessed a lot of the problems with famine. And it's stayed with him. For me, there was something about the homelessness issue that was like this voice just saying, you've got to try to find some way of getting involved here.
There were a couple of stories as well that sort of inspired me. One Irish homeless man, in Dublin, quite famously rescued the driver of a bus that had plunged into the River Liffey. And he and a passer-by actually climbed down though this wrecked bus because the front of it was in the water but the back of it was accessible from the bridge. And they climbed down through the broken rear window and dragged the bus driver out and saved his life. But he ended up wandering into the night with his wet clothes to sleep rough.
And it just struck me as a kind of really tragic scenario – I wasn't the only one. It was a big story in Ireland.
Not that you've ever suffered through the kinds of struggles that homeless people do, but as a child or when you were trying to get U2 started, was there a time when you felt like you lived close to the margins?
I mean, friends of ours, during the early days, we would hang out in derelict buildings … and all that stuff, which was kind of almost a rite of passage, particularly if you were coming out in a punk band, the punk movement. But no, personally, I can't lay claim ever having had to deal with not having a home. Although there are people I know who've had phases of being homeless, I'm not putting myself forward as an expert in homelessness.
In fact, Anne Mahlum, who's the advocate who does all of the heavy lifting in the show, is really the person who made this possible. Without her we didn't have even the beginnings to this film. She brings so much of her own personal experience to this amazing initiative, Back on My Feet, which for years has been brining dozens of homeless people back into regular society.
Ann's got such a depth of experience of being not just an advocate but an interventionist. She will try in as delicate a way as possible to help someone figure out the way forward. As she says no one wants to be homeless, but a lot of homeless people just don't know how now to be. It's a delicate thing. It's not just a case of knowing how to ask for help, it's the feeling like you are worthy of help. And having the courage and strength to realize to put up your hand and realize that you need it and finding it.
We weren't sure at the start of this production what was going to happen. We hope the interventions were going to turn out to be a positive thing but of course there was no guarantee. … As it happens with Nancy, with Rob, with Ava, all three of the featured homeless people, they showed a great sense of being able to take advantage of the opportunity and to break the stereotypical that if you're homeless you don't want to change, you don't want to work, you don't want to better your situation.
What I learned in the process of making this film is the one thing that seems to be crucial to anyone's progress in life is a community. Supporters, family, friends, work mates, whatever. When someone has no one there to help in that isolated place it's not that hard to fall into this kind of problem of having no home. Connecting these young people if not to their original family and friends to a new community seems like a big step to moving forward.
You've written so many songs that have become associated with different social causes. Do you ever start out thinking, 'I want to do something about this problem and maybe a song will help?' Or does it just evolve out of the music?
It's different ways. In most cases with U2 the music comes first. The lyric will sort of emerge as it were from the music and the emotional content that the music seems to suggest. In this case, for the song I wrote for the show, I was trying to write about homelessness and the issue. In many ways we're all looking for a home, we're all searching.
But it's the lack of a physical place to live, that's the thing that's so crippling. I think would be the only way to describe it for someone who's in that position. It stops you from doing so many things. Just the act of voting, getting a job. So many things are more difficult if you don't have a place to live. We need to get better at dealing with it.
And can you say what you're listening to now?
There's a very interesting album called "The English Riviera" by Metronomy. It's quite an interesting record. It's kind of timeless but very quirky. But also very fresh. I'm enjoying that. Foster the People just for pure melody is great. And Bon Iver – I love the innovation of that sonically. It's a very interesting record.
"The Break" premieres tonight at 8/7c on MTV.