Constant dollars

For comedy legend Jerry Farber, helping the homeless is no joke


By John Ruch

Jerry Farber is a legend of the Atlanta comedy scene. But his commitment to helping those who help the homeless is no joke.

On November 12, Farber walked nearly seven weeks from his new hometown of Columbus to Savannah to raise funds for the homeless and local organizations that provide support. And did we mention he’s 83?

“I don’t play golf, I don’t play tennis, and the thought of it makes me nauseous,” Farber said by phone from Savannah as he finished the “Walk On Hope” with a visit to the shelter. Union Mission. “… If you have helped someone for an hour of your life, you will feel more fulfilled. “

A full-fledged comedian, Farber ran Atlanta comedy clubs for decades before retiring to Columbus a few years ago. In the late 1980s, at the height of Buckhead’s nightclub scene, he was running Jerry Farber’s Place, which helped launch the careers of stars such as Jeff Foxworthy. Before leaving Atlanta, he ran the Side Door club at Buckhead’s Landmark Diner, which is now the last home of another legendary club, the Punchline.

Farber continues to perform and keeps an eye on the national comedy scene, expressing his admiration for modern stars like Jim Gaffigan. But his personal heroes haven’t changed: Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Richard Pryor. His take on these legends of social and political commentary has a certain tinge of his late brother Barry Farber, a talk radio pioneer who took a political turn towards conservatism.

Farber recalls a 1967 Woody Allen TV special where the comedian interviewed then-arch-conservative star William F. Buckley Jr. “I almost look at him like some people are praying,” Farber said of the comment. of the interview, which is available on YouTube. “They couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, but they couldn’t be more polite. … I look at it almost like the story because it’s all gone.

Farber’s own involvement in the social and political issue of homelessness came roughly 25 years ago simply as a favor to friends who worked with the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, which was launched on demand. from Mayor Andrew Young in the 1980s. Farber says that as a “pretty popular artist” he agreed to organize a fundraiser at his Buckhead club.

Through this work, he met Jim and Anita Beatty, the operators of the downtown Peachtree-Pine Refuge, which had been in almost constant battle with the city and its neighbors since it opened in 1997. Farber organized a fundraiser. for the refuge starring Foxworthy and Lewis Black. He quickly joined the shelter’s board of directors and spent the night in his bunks.

The Peachtree-Pine shelter as it looked in 2017 (File photo by Maria Saporta)

“I was probably the most helpless member of the board, but I really have to care,” Farber said. His experience there helped him understand that “these are the most unrecognized and underserved people, and they need help. If religion means anything, they are all children of God.

Farber is not religious himself, but he had personal and existential reasons for sympathizing with the clients of the shelter. A gambling addiction cost him several thousand dollars – some from him, others borrowed from friends and family – and could easily have cost him his house.

“It was a terrible chapter. It hurt a lot of people,” Farber says. “I was broken and giving back has helped me a lot to recover from my addiction.”

“I was there until the end,” Farber said of Peachtree-Pine, which closed in 2017 after losing its battle with the city and is now owned by Emory University. He says he sees both sides, as the shelter was not run as a business, when “the City wanted us… away from places where tourists would see the homeless.”

Homelessness is a problem throughout Georgia, including Farber’s new hometown, Columbus, and other towns like Macon and Savannah, as well as many smaller towns and rural areas.

The Chatham-Savannah Authority for the Homeless reports that in 2020, 4,058 homeless people received services through local programs. Of that group, 610 were described as chronically homeless (up from 786 in the 2019 tally), with 74% African-Americans and over 38% veterans. The public school system said it served more than 1,000 homeless children.

The Housing Savannah Task Force, a government agency created to address the issue, says increases in the city’s housing costs have exceeded income increases by nearly 2 to 1 over the past 30 years. About 40% of households in the savannah “cannot afford quality housing,” according to the task force, which has an action plan calling for the construction or improvement of at least 15,000 housing units. ‘by 2032 affordable for households representing up to 80% of the region’s median income.

Farber talks about his fundraising walk in a YouTube video recorded before he left Columbus.

Immediate help is also important, and it’s one of the ways Farber aimed to help with his walk, which began on September 26. Conducted in part by driving between venues, the fundraiser included comedy shows and shelter visits along the way. Sometimes Farber was solo, other times joined by friends and other supporters. At the time of publication, Farber had raised over $ 7,100 and secured corporate donations, including 2,000 socks from Bombas and 1,000 pecan rolls from Stuckey’s. The items go to shelters and the funds will be used to pay for backpacks of supplies, among other programs, Farber said. (For more fundraising details, see his GoFundMe page.)

For part of the trip, Farber slept in his car, warning law enforcement agencies along the way that he himself was not homeless. He got a lot of support in small towns like Reynolds, he said. “I’m not giving general approval from the police, but from those I have encountered – I think the most dangerous thing happening in town was my appearance,” he said.

For better or worse, Farber has encountered homeless and homeless people along the way in small towns and cities.

In Dublin, Georgia, he said, he accidentally soaked his sheets in water. “I was spreading sheets, so I looked like a homeless person,” he says. He was approached by a young woman with mental health issues who said to him, “Can I help you, sir? I was homeless myself, ”and offered to do all his laundry while he wandered around town. He bought her dinner and her mother later attended her fundraising comedy show.

Less pleasant was his encounter with a group of homeless people as he tried to lie down in his car in the parking lot of a grocery store in Milledgeville. The group gathered around the car to “check it was okay,” Farber said. “I’ve always had 20 $ 1 bills with me, that’s a New York thing,” he says. “Because ‘protection’ sounds too cruel, but if you’re able to do it, you give a dollar here and a dollar there. He says he gave eight people a dollar and left to park at the police station.

As he spoke to me at the end of the trip, Farber was enjoying a little luxury arranged for him in Savannah by friends: wine in a rooftop bar of a beautiful hotel where they had reserved a room for him. But as he spoke of the ever-growing income inequality in the United States, he couldn’t help but look over the edge of luxury.

“I can see the homeless [people] I’m getting ready to go to bed outside the JW Marriott where I am – $ 700 a night, ”he said.