Tom Brokaw warns right away that tonight's NBC News special about the homeless is a program about "despair and humiliation and anger," and he keeps his promise (Channels 4, 36 and 39 at 10 p.m.).
"The Homeless" is a depressing one-hour tour of a grimly familiar national nightmare led by Brokaw and co-reporter Lucky Severson, who introduce various street people whose problems all appear unsolvable.
Some are de-institutionalized mental patients who obviously are too ill to be on their own but have nowhere to go but the streets because there aren't enough halfway houses or shelters. We meet social workers and homeless advocates who try to help them.
We see barely teen-age runaways or "throwaways" who live in groups in abandoned houses and support themselves by begging and prostitution. And we meet street-living Vietnam veterans still crippled psychologically by their war experiences and Iowa families who've lost their farm homes.
Brokaw and company show us much sadness, whether it's a teary mother worrying about her mentally ill son or a hardened 17-year-old prostitute named Star who says, "It's too late for me. I'm an old war dog."
The hour is heavy with appeals to the emotions and with calls for more compassion from the rest of society. But it offers little new or compelling information. Hard facts about the numbers of homeless or the amount of funding they receive are rare or annoyingly imprecise.
Most of the people seen in this gloomy hour seem to be victims trapped in hopeless situations. One Vietnam vet's story has a happy ending, but viewers are left completely in the dark as to how he pulled it off it. He's merely called "one of the lucky ones," an example of the fuzzy thinking that runs through a documentary that is much better at showing problems than explaining them.