Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article incorrectly said a Public Enemy song declared 9/11 a joke. The song refers to 911, the emergency phone number.

Public Enemy reaches out to homeless youth in D.C.

By Akeya Dickson
Thursday, November 26, 2009

Before oversize clocks and reality television and before he penned lyrics with Public Enemy, Flavor Flav was homeless. He slept in a dumpster and would escape just before the garbage truck came to haul the trash.

"I know what it feels like to wake up in the streets, you know what I'm saying. With no money in my pocket, hungry," he said. "I'm not just talking about what I wrote; I'm talking about what I know."

Flavor Flav brought his trademark bombast and personality recently to Sasha Bruce House, a haven for homeless and displaced youth in Southeast Washington. He shared personal moments about his homelessness.

His previous circumstances echoed what some of the children in the audience are facing. His longtime friend and Public Enemy frontman, Chuck D, the group's socially conscious wordsmith, imparted fatherly advice. After all, "what you don't put your time into today, you'll pay for it later, except it'll be 10 times harder," Chuck D said.

Visiting the center was a no-brainer, he said. The toughest neighborhoods in the District could easily be interchangeable with his hometown in Roosevelt, N.Y., Chuck D said.

"We come from one square mile of Long Island that's plagued with not enough. Not enough teachers, not enough of anything," he said. "You want this kind of thing to actually metastasize so that there can be a template to show that there are enough people to have an impact on the maladies that are out there. You need gigantic structure to get behind people who have been doing this for a long time and on the grass-roots level."

Flavor Flav, Chuck D and the rest of Public Enemy toured Sasha Bruce House and shared an early Thanksgiving dinner Nov. 18. Afterward, they gave a short performance from a flatbed truck outside George Washington Lisner Auditorium, where they later played for a paying audience.

Inside Lisner, Public Enemy gave a benefit concert for about 300 people. The fans shrieked in response to Flavor Flav's call to make noise and "give back to all our homeless people."

In the audience was Denisha Bolden, 16, who used to live in Sasha Bruce. Today she takes part in the center's work-oriented program, Youth-Led.

Bolden told group members to remember her name because she would see them again soon, "but under different circumstances."

"I'm a big fan of Public Enemy. I have more of an old soul, so I really like this," she said. "Flavor Flav is the original hype man. A lot of people feed on this and take it seriously. They are trying to take them off the streets."

Public Enemy has earned notoriety with more than 20 years of politically charged music about fighting the power, challenging racism and declaring that 911 was a joke. The group has joined forces with Virgin Mobile USA to combat youth homelessness as part of National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week.

"We thought since homelessness itself starts in the streets, that the show should," Ron Farris of Virgin Mobile said. There are about 2 million homeless youths in the nation.

Deborah Shore, founder and executive director of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, is a self-described child of the 1960s. She has worked with homeless youths since she was a young woman and said she was inspired to start the organization over time.

More children are going to the center because of the economic downturn, she said. The center houses 10 children, Shore said.

"Seventy-five percent of them can in fact go home," she said. "We provide after-school activities and youth development to keep them engaged and on the right track."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company