I’ll go ahead and say this now: this is actually a trick question, and the answer is both yes and no. But don’t get angry at me just yet, regardless of where you sit on this answer.
There is very little representation of homelessness, especially in popular media, which is, frankly, where most of us get our information and learn about the world.
As a young person, I spend a great deal of time learning about the world we live in and other people on YouTube. This is why the YouTube video Millionaire Goes Homeless To Prove Anyone Can Make $1,000,000 is troubling. Content creators such as these are significant, influential figures in our society. That is not to say that YouTube is inherently bad or can’t be a trusted source of information. That’s quite far from the truth, in my opinion.
What makes YouTube and social media in general so powerful is that it opens the world of journalism. In a sense, it passes the mic to the most trustworthy journalist – the person experiencing homelessness. That is why resources such as Invisible People are so necessary because they offer us just that. We are passing the mic to homeless people who can speak about homelessness accurately because they have that learned, firsthand experience of what it entails.
When I think about how homelessness is portrayed in the media, especially in spaces such as these, I realize how important it is to present homelessness accurately. And honestly, it goes far beyond that—case in point, Hendrix’s YouTube video featuring millionaire Mike Black.
The video depicts a false understanding of homelessness, and demonstrates how society falsely represents the working class poor, as well as those living in poverty. In fact, it falsely represents how the world works in general. I’ll get more into that soon.
I can only hope that when viewers see this YouTube video, they realize that a millionaire cannot speak for the experiences of a poor person. And they surely could not speak for the experiences of a homeless person either.
When I watched Hendrix’s YouTube video, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of dread at the 1.2 million views or the nearly 100 thousand “up” votes. That’s a lot of people who like and agree with this video. Frankly, this is why I felt it was critical to respond to this video publicly and do so on a platform that can compete with the size of his audience.
Now, to answer the initial question at the top of the article – is this false representation? Again, my answer is both yes and no. I will now explain why I think so.
For starters, any person conducting a “project” and “trying out homelessness for fun” is not likely able to give you an accurate account of authentic homelessness. The subject knows his “homelessness” is temporary, so his experiment is tainted, and his perspective and choices will reflect that. The project is a challenge, so self-worth and dignity aren’t factors in decision-making.
Additionally, since Black is simply “trying out homelessness for fun,” the real threat of homelessness doesn’t exist. There is no threat because he is a millionaire, and he can stop being homeless at any point. The only threat is not winning his challenge.
Because there is no real-life threat of homelessness, there is also no genuine anxiety, fear of safety, survival, or sleeping out in the cold wondering where to get your next meal. This alone puts you in a completely different headspace than an actual homeless person.
When watching this video, you’ll also notice that he manages to eliminate the most significant obstacle and literal definition of homelessness rather quickly and early in the project. Within a day, he manages to secure shelter. So, already, he cannot speak on the reality of street homelessness or sheltered homelessness, or even mobile homelessness.
You see how much luck and privilege play into the rest of his experience. Not only does he manage to start his own business while homeless, but he also manages to find a cosigner for a house. All of this is possible because he has connections, a computer, and access to the internet.
None of this is realistic for a homeless person.
On the other hand, something else is incredibly telling about this project and why I think it is worth considering. Again, luck is the most significant factor in Black’s success, which teaches us something quite true – getting out of homelessness has a lot to do with luck. And where luck falters, in his case anyway, privilege picks up the slack. In other words, it has nothing to do with how it should work, which is existing in a system that protects us from homelessness and extreme poverty.
Although I’m no millionaire, I did find Black’s story relatable in the fact that my experience with surviving homeless was 99% luck and privilege. I just managed to run into a very charitable broker who felt bad for me and wanted to help. Thanks to that broker, I had access to housing that would otherwise not have been available to me. I did not have a steady (or high) income, nor did I have good credit. Yet, my broker was able to mask that and get me housed.
This was pure luck and, frankly, impossible in any other situation. If I did not run into this broker, I would not have gotten housed as quickly as I did. And I was still homeless for a year. But because I had a laptop, wifi access, and I was young, educated, and white, I could access a broker. All of these factors mattered, and these are factors simply not afforded to many other homeless people.
Hendrix’s “project” is nothing short of a mockery of actual homelessness and the people experiencing it every single day.
He makes light of the real psychological distress, hungry bellies, crowded cars, and cold benches. Homeless people are not a spectacle, and their lives are not a “fun project.”
Homelessness is real, and it is one of the worst things a person can experience in their lifetime. Thankfully Black will never know what homelessness feels like when it’s no longer fun and you cannot go home.