Update: Trevor Neilson responds, explaining that he did, in fact, fully vet Jesse Helt but decided the young man deserved to tell his story in light of his homeless experiences and the minor nature of his crime. See below.
Trevor Neilson is a big name in celebrity philanthropic consulting, but he's no stranger to controversy. And now he's dealing with a controversy that appears to be of his own creation — failing to
fully vet anticipate the media reaction to the background of a homeless young man, Jesse Helt, before letting Helt take the mic for Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards.
Neilson, previously labeled “Charity Fixer to the Stars” by the New York Times, has been IDed by the Associated Press as the person who selected the youth homeless center on Hollywood Boulevard, My Friend's Place, and then steered Cyrus to the appealing young Helt. The son of a former Pepsi Cola exec, Helt wowed the world on TV, but then the warrant for his arrest came to light. Days later, Helt turned himself in to Oregon authorities. He's now free on $2,500 bail.
In a weird way, Helt, who is accused only of violating probation after a misdemeanor conviction several years ago — is exactly who Trevor Neilson should have chosen, if only Neilson had handled it right:
Earlier this year, Neilson warned that big-name stars might be afraid to help out charities. This, after Oxfam and its longtime ambassador, actor Scarlett Johansson, split over her appearance in an ad for SodaStreamTV (which has a factory in a controversial Israeli settlement).
Now, the celebrities, actors, athletes, people who are the focus of our celebrity-obsessed culture, will be less likely to become philanthropic.
And now after the arrest warrant controversy, celebrities may have another reason to stay out of high-profile philanthropy.
Neilson, co-founder of Global Philanthropy Group, has worked with Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, Madonna, Bill Gates, Bono, Bill Clinton and Richard Branson, advising them on which causes are worthy of their star power. (Neilson previously tangled with L.A. Weekly's former corporate parent, Village Voice Media, which criticized Neilson and his wife Maggie for public service announcements in which their clients, Kuchter and Moore, claimed that the U.S. has 100,000 to 300,000 sex slaves.)
In this latest controversy, Helt's own dad, Dennis Helt, told the Daily Mail that he was shocked to hear on TV of his son's downward spiral, having believed his son was in California following “his dream.” The father said he had not spoken to Jesse Helt this year — and had not seen him for three years.
Helt's invite to the VMAs now has the media focused on his modest criminal record, not the plight of homeless kids.
Activists for homeless children are trying to promote a different side of these stories, alerting people to the 53,000 (and probably far more) chronically homeless youths, a lot of whom come from two demographic categories:
— Roughly 23,000 foster care kids tossed on the streets yearly when they “age out” at 18, and
— A second, overlapping, group — tens of thousands of runaway kids, 75 percent of whom are said to be girls, who've often been sexually or physically abused before leaving home.
Helt's own road to homelessness is not yet clear. His misdemeanor conviction years ago in Oregon, despite the media uproar, is nothing remarkable in the often-violent world of homeless youths.
As AP reports:
Court records show that Helt pleaded guilty to misdemeanor criminal mischief and criminal trespass several years ago after breaking into the apartment of a man he believed to be selling bad marijuana. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and probation. The arrest warrant was issued in November 2011 after he violated probation.
Helt's mother was quoted as saying Miley Cyrus has offered to help pay for Helt's defense on the charge that he violated his probation.
Neilson could not be reached by L.A. Weekly, but he said last night in an emailed statement to the media:
Jesse Helt turned himself in tonight to Polk County authorities to address his outstanding legal issues. Miley Cyrus will be assisting him with this process, and they both are committed to working to help the other 1.6 million youth who experience homelessness in America each year.
As to Neilson's estimate of 1.6 million homeless youth, that's a probably yet another wildly inaccurate figure.
It's tossed around by some of the nation's leading homeless advocacy groups, but in truth, the 1.6 million figure is merely an estimate of how many kids are homeless for even a single night.
The looming problem among young people is not the one-nighters. It's the chronic homeless kids with no choice but to jam into places like My Friend's Place — and those who never seek any help at all.
Thanks to the media blowback over Helt's past, the real story here has largely been buried.
Congress has been dogged for years in trying to accurately estimate the number of kids roaming the streets and falling into poverty and hopelessness. A federal task force came up with a crazy diagram (see below), to understand how big the crisis is, a crucial step to creating the “capacity” to address one of America's more shameful problems.
Heres the diagram, from the federal report, “Framework to End Youth Homelessness,” produced by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness:
Celebrities who weigh in on youth homelessness probably have little grasp of how complex this issue is.
Cyrus may not have been thinking about the fact that homeless youth such as Helt are sometimes running from pasts that can include their own criminal acts.
Helt told the world at the awards:
I am accepting this award on behalf of the 1.6 million runaways and homeless youth in the United States who are starving, lost, and scared for their lives right now. … I know this because I am one of these people.
The U.S. Department of Education reports that 52,950 “unaccompanied homeless youth” were supported by school-based programs in 2008-09. The feds also say that 22,631 “young people who live on their own used emergency or transitional housing services” in 2009.
But as the interagency council notes, “It is widely agreed this is a serious undercount, as unaccompanied youth are often unconnected to services or shelters.”
A raft of research into the crisis shows that homeless kids are suffering from — no surprise here — a lot of depression, suicide initiations and other “mental health disorders.”
One the most preventable of these tragedies arises because 23,000 foster care youths are released to the streets annually on their eighteenth birthdays by a foster care system that, the interagency council says, “failed to reunite [the children] with their families or place in permanent homes — aged out of foster care, simply because they were too old to remain.”
Updated at 4:13 p.m:
Trevor Neilson responds: “After meeting Jesse we became aware of his past legal issues. Since they were minor, and because many homeless people have them, we decided that they should not stop Jesse from speaking up for himself and other homeless youth. I feel very strongly that even people who have had problems in their life deserve a safe place to sleep, food to eat, and a second chance in life.”