Les Podewell, who plays the old homeless man O'Reilly, died in 1998. He was 91. Hospitalized after a stroke, the Chicago Tribune reports, 26 November 1998, Podewell, asked the usual questions to test his coherence—who's the president? how many fingers am I holding up?—he instead, at his daughter's urging, "regaled [his doctors] with the Player's Speech, a soliloquy from Shakespeare's 'Hamlet,' which he last had performed in the 1930s." The same Chicago Tribune article tells us, “Mr. Podewell's career spanned 70 years, and he had more than 100 productions to his name. In the film ‘Groundhog Day,’ Mr. Podewell played a homeless man befriended by Murray's character.”
Podewell seems like he was a cool guy. Aside from that Hamlet thing, According to his daughter, he “was very unassuming; he never talked about himself--which is unusual for an actor.” In Groundhog Day, of course, he doesn’t even speak. He barely even make a sound (and the sound he does make may have been dubbed in later from someone else). I wonder sometimes why, with so many characters getting to speak here and there, O’Reilly never says a line. Other times, I assume it was a deliberate choice to not give a voice to the homeless guy. On the one hand, you don’t want to get to know the homeless character too well, especially, the homeless character who is doomed to die, because that will be too depressing. On the other hand, to give him voice would be, on a meta level, giving a voice to the homeless out in the real world. And, one could almost see Phil’s failure to save O’Reilly not simply as the one thing Phil cannot change, thus proving he is not a god, but also as representing an incurable condition in our modern world. Or at least, presumed incurable. If Phil represents all of us, then of course he wouldn’t be able to cure homelessness, because we cannot cure homelessness…
For a point (or points, plural, I guess) of reference, the National Coalition for the Homeless website reports the following:
• 633,782 people were homeless on a single night in January 2012. This is largely unchanged (-0.4%) from January 2011, and a represents a reduction of 5.7% since 2007. Most homeless persons (62%) are individuals while 38% of homeless persons are in family households.
• 62,619 veterans were homeless on a single night in January 2012, and veteran homelessness fell by 7.2% (4,876 persons) since January 2011 and by 17.2% since January 2009.
• Persons experiencing long-term or chronic homelessness declined 6.8% (or 7,254) from last year and 19.3% (or 23,939 persons) since 2007.
• Homelessness among individuals declined 1.4% (or 5,457) from a year ago and 6.8% since 2007. Meanwhile, the number of homeless families increased 1.4 % from last year though declining 3.7% since 2007.
• Street homelessness (the unsheltered population) was unchanged since January 2011, yet declined 13.1% (or 36,860 people) since 2007.
And, we can look at stuff like that and just see numbers. It’s unfortunate, but there’s nothing we can do about it, like O’Reilly’s death for Phil Connors.
Except, that isn’t quite true. I don’t mean the Phil Connors side, though we don’t see him try to help O’Reilly starting in the morning so maybe the old guy would have more of a chance. I think we are supposed to assume that Phil could not save O’Reilly, no matter what he did for him. What isn’t true is that homelessness, strictly speaking, is not curable. A Nation Swell article from just yesterday (as I write this), reports… well, just look at the headline: “Utah Is on Track to End Homelessness by 2015 With This One Simple Idea.” Sure, the headline is a bit simplistic and reads like a come on ad you might see in your Facebook margins. But, the idea within actually is quite simple:
Utah has reduced its rate of chronic homelessness by 78 percent over the past eight years, moving 2000 people off the street and putting the state on track to eradicate homelessness altogether by 2015. How’d they do it? The state is giving away apartments, no strings attached. In 2005, Utah calculated the annual cost of E.R. visits and jail stays for an average homeless person was $16,670, while the cost of providing an apartment and social worker would be $11,000. Each participant works with a caseworker to become self-sufficient, but if they fail, they still get to keep their apartment.
Wyoming News reports more detail:
Utah started a pilot program that took 17 people in Salt Lake City who had spent an average of 25 years on the street and put them in apartments. Caseworkers were assigned to help them become self-sufficient, but there were no strings attached n if they failed, the participants still had a place to live.
The “Housing First” program’s goal was to end chronic homelessness in Utah within 10 years. Through 2012, it had helped reduce the 2,000 people in that category when it began by 74 percent.
Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, said the state is on track to meet its goal by 2015 and become the first state in the nation to do so.
If we first provide shelter to those who desperately need it, with no strings attached, people then have a fighting chance to battle whatever problems led them to live on the streets in the first place.
By giving them a roof over their heads instead of a hospital bed or jail cell, Wyoming communities can show they are both compassionate and good stewards of public funds.
There’s plenty of room to write more about homelessness, but this isn’t the place for that… well, really this is the place for anything I can justify connecting to Groundhog Day. Within the context of the film, though, as I said above, we are supposed to assume that O’Reilly cannot be saved. It’s easier for us to assume the same of the real homeless. And, we can walk past them like Phil Connors, maybe not even bother patting our pockets like we intend to offer them money, and get on with our business because it’s not our problem, and even if it were, we can’t do anything about it. And, remember how I started yesterday’s entry, with Gregory Solman calling O’Reilly a “wino” in Film Comment November 1993. If we assume a homeless person is a wino or a drug addict or a criminal, then we can get to the point where it wouldn’t matter if we could do something because it’s their own fault and they don’t deserve our help.
Unable to save O’Reilly, specifically, though, remember what Phil does. He doesn’t give up on helping anyone. He maximizes his potential to help anyone and everyone he can in the short time he is allotted. And, I don’t think I’ve made this particular argument before, but his Chekhov report from Gobbler’s Knob and his performance at the Groundhog Day Festival Banquet count as part of that maximization. Inspiring people with a simple location report, keeping the locals happy with a good bit of entertainment—these may be at a different quality level as far as good deeds go, but they are still useful acts that make the world a better place.
Hell, even his attempts to save O’Reilly serve a positive purpose in the effect on the audience, anchoring the positive message we get from Phil’s journey in a melancholy center.
Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to experience the melancholy center and the positive purpose of every act, and to share that experience with others.