$100 Homeless Experiment
So, this story has been popping up in my Facebook feed over and over for the last few days.
YouTuber Josh Paler Lin – better-known for his hilarious pranks – was feeling the holiday spirit and decided to give a homeless man in California $100 to see what he would do with it.
He followed the man, Thomas, with a camera to see how he spent the money. His first stop was a liquor store, but not for the reasons some might think: He bought bread and then headed over to a park, where Lin filmed him distributing the food to other homeless people
Thomas explained that he simply wanted to use the money to help others in his situation. Lin gave him another $100 and has even started a crowdfunding campaign to help buy Thomas clothes, food and get him on the road to a job. He’s already surpassed his $10,00 goal and raised over $60,000.
It’s been really bugging me, and I wasn’t sure why. It’s a feel-good story, right? Homeless man gets a decent chunk of change, for a homeless person. More homeless people get some food. Then the original guy ends up getting some substantial help. And everyone learns about the value of giving. It’s a Christmas miracle! And so on. Seems like it should be heartwarming, not irritating.
I think I know what’s bothering me, though. First of all, most of the headlines on this story are like the one that I linked. It’s Astonishing! Surprising! Shocking! that this guy gets a little windfall and shares it with other people like him. As if that’s just unheard of. It’s downright offensive. People without homes aren’t all that different from people with homes — they’re capable of sharing. In my own experience, poor people are often very generous. To some extent, it aids in survival — you share what you have and the next time, when it’s someone else that gets a little extra, they’ll share with you. Also, having nothing, or next to nothing, can help you empathize with someone else who has nothing. I mean, if you’ve ever been really hungry, you know that “starving because you’re too poor to eat” hungry is different from “trying out a new fad diet” hungry, so when you see that, you know what the person is going through. Homeless people have communities of their own, and they tend to take care of each other like neighbors anywhere. Maybe better than neighbors in some places, because they don’t have walls or fences to distance themselves from the next person’s struggles.
This shouldn’t be news. Heck, there’s a story from Mother Teresa that’s been floating around for years about how she gave some rice to a poor family, and the mother immediately divided it up and brought half of it to her neighbors, even though that meant that her own family still wouldn’t have enough (it’s near the top of this page if you’ve never seen it.) I totally disagree with most of what Mother Teresa was trying to say in that story (she outright says that she didn’t just bring the family more rice because she wanted them to “experience the joy of loving and sharing” in the form of hunger pains, which I think is straight-up psycho) I do agree that this is how things tend to work in poor communities. You can’t take really good care of each other when no one really has anything, but if most people do what they can for the people around them, you can keep your neighbors from dying, and that’s what happens a lot of the time. It’s not even difficult to see it happen. There’s no reason to be shocked that a homeless guy would share. Even if he’d bought alcohol or drugs with the money, those probably would have ended up getting shared as well — you see that too.
Speaking of which, homeless people aren’t all junkies and alcoholics. There is no good reason for this to still be a prevalent belief. There are over a million homeless children in this country. Thousands of homeless veterans. Tons of people who used to have good jobs before the bottom dropped out on the economy and who were just never able to get back on track. Who knows how many people who are physically or mentally disabled. It’s inexcusable to just assume that every homeless person you see is there because they just decided it would be more fun to smoke crack than work. (Also, off topic, but there are studies like this one that suggest that when homeless people are addicts, the addiction is more likely to have started after the homelessness, rather than the other way around, which means it’s likely a coping mechanism when it does happen. You might want to be high if you were sleeping underneath a bridge too. And that means that helping homeless addicts not be homeless might do more to fix the addiction than judging them for being addicts.)
At any rate, my first problem with the story is fact that it’s being framed as some shocking thing because the homeless man was nice to other people and wasn’t a junkie. The assumptions about homeless people inherent in that framing are gross.
Secondly, it’s exploitative. This poor homeless guy is standing by a freeway with a sign, trying to get food, which you know has to suck. You-Tube Guy gives him $100 and the homeless guy tries to give it back, a few times. You-Tube Guy keeps telling him to take it, and he finally does. Regardless of what happens after that, You-Tube Guy is being a dick when he decides to follow him secretly and record what he does. If you want to give, give. If not, don’t. But turning some unsuspecting guy who’s begging for food into a social experiment seems unethical at best. And You-Tube Guy not some random guy who happens to have a camera and spontaneously decided to make a video; making viral videos is what he does. He went into this planning to secretly film this dude spending $100, share the video, and make ad money off watching what a homeless guy does when you give him money. That’s also gross. I appreciate that he gave the guy more money after seeing what he did, and that he set up the crowdfunding thing, but that doesn’t erase the fact that his original plan here was to secretly exploit this homeless, hungry person’s reaction to a windfall to make a profit. That’s icky.
Third — I’m glad the nice homeless dude is getting donations, really. I hope that it changes his life for the better. But I’m bothered by the idea that a lot of people are probably going to donate to this one person because he fits their criteria of “deserving”, while ignoring the millions of other people on the street who are also deserving, but don’t happen to be getting You-Tube pranked right now. People deserve food and shelter and clothing because they’re people, not because they happened to be at the right place at the right time for someone with a camera to see them doing something noteworthy. No one deserves homelessness.
This particular feel-good story just does not leave me feeling very good at all.