01:40 - Source: CNN
Homeless vet makeover goes viral

Story highlights

A video of homeless veteran Jim Wolf getting a makeover got 14 million views

It helped raise more than $30,000 for homeless mission in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Wolf, however, continues to struggle; he was arrested shortly afterward

His sister says Wolf lost hope: "I don't think he can see the trees through the forest"

CNN —  

After 25 years, Robin Thomas had just about lost hope.

Her brother, Jim Wolf, suffers from depression, alcoholism, unresolved grief and chronic homelessness, she says. No one disputes Wolf has been arrested dozens and dozens of times, mostly for misdemeanors such as public intoxication. Thomas says her brother “lives in survival mode” and nearly died after an altercation with a bouncer left him with a crushed sternum and broken foot, she says.

Recently, Wolf was featured in a fundraising video created by Rob Bliss for Dégagé Ministries. The group provides shelter, meals and other services daily to more than 400 homeless people in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Wolf is one of their regular clients.

The video features Wolf getting a makeover that included a haircut with highlights, beard grooming and a beautiful new suit. The video received more than 14 million views in just a few weeks and helped raise more than $30,000 for Dégagé Ministries.

Bliss says his hope was for the makeover to provide a start down a new path.

Thomas says Wolf has started on that path before.

“It’s our hope he’ll take steps,” Thomas says. “The makeover took a couple of hours. He’s had alcoholism for 25 years.”

Wolf joined the U.S. Army at age 18 and spent a few years in the National Guard. Thomas says Wolf trained to deploy with an infantry unit but never deployed. She doesn’t know exactly how many years he served.

The nation’s homeless veterans are predominantly male, according the Department of Veterans Affairs. The majority are single, live in urban areas and suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse, or co-occurring disorders. About 13% of the adult homeless population are veterans.

Thomas says Wolf never saw combat; she suspects the life event that continues to haunt him was the sudden death of their mother. But that, his sister says, was years ago.

Neither Thomas nor Bliss seemed surprised or anxious when Wolf was arrested shortly after the video was released. That Wolf is drinking but not using drugs is something of a relief.

“If he gets arrested fewer times this year than last, that’s progress,” Bliss says.

Thomas agrees. She doesn’t take responsibility for Wolf or make excuses for him. When speaking of her brother, she seems quiet, respectful and a bit sad. She knows he is not the same big brother who was there for her growing up. She doesn’t question why her three other brothers have been less involved in helping Wolf than she is. She says Wolf is a great guy, has always been a great guy, but he’s never dealt with the reality of the havoc he’s created.

Since the video was posted, people have shown willingness to help in various ways, Bliss and Thomas say. Dentists, rehabilitation facilities and doctors have offered assistance. Wolf was recently interviewed for a spot at a long-term residential treatment facility and received a complete physical, Thomas said. This week, he visited the hairstylist who cut his hair in the video for a trim.

“He shows people his picture in the paper,” Thomas says. “He’s always sought attention, whether it’s by telling a joke or leaving a cabinet door open while passing through the kitchen.”

She knows all these things are good things. She also admits that perhaps the video did not give Wolf the “glimpse into the future” that others had hoped. He did not view it as a life-changing event, Thomas says.

Walking into Dégagé Ministries this week, Thomas says, she had the sudden realization that the day center held “300 Jims.”

“My hope for him is to get clean and sober,” she said, “then get help with his depression. And for him to gain back hopefulness. I think he’s hopeless. I don’t think he can see the trees through the forest.”

As for the rest of us who will click on the video, then later in the day walk by a man or woman holding a sign, or huddling in a cardboard box, Thomas hopes we will be willing to extend a hand of support instead of a dollar bill.

“Volunteer to give them some purpose. Talk to them. Have a simple conversation,” she said. “I may have almost lost hope, but I will never give up.”