‘Feel-Good’ Stories Do Nothing to Humanize Homeless People

happy homeless woman

The Slippery Slope of Poverty and Inspiration Porn

Homelessness is front and center when it comes to inspiration porn. We see it in viral videos on every social media site. I’ve seen dozens of them. I’ve seen various “feel good stories” or “experiments” where a wallet or cash is dropped in front of a homeless person. Someone around the corner is holding a cell phone to record the footage – waiting to capture this homeless person’s reaction. Will they chase after this man and return the money? Or will they keep it, and consider this a stroke of good luck? Perhaps they’ll think: Finally! I can buy that raincoat, that tent, that new backpack!

What should this homeless person have done? What would you have done? Either option is justified, isn’t it? Who are we to pass judgement, anyway? No matter our opinion, regardless of this “experiment”, regardless of this “feel good story” suddenly going viral, and millions of people seeing it, that homeless man will still be homeless tomorrow.

I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s wrong to exploit someone, especially the absolute most vulnerable, someone who is likely going through the hardest thing they’ll ever go through in their life. And for what? For views? For hits?

Some may argue that these videos are a good thing – they’re painting a positive image about homeless people.

But, these stories do nothing to humanize homeless people.

They don’t put the obstacles, the injustice front and center – the income inequality, the choking housing market, the flaws that exist within the homeless sector. No, they’re putting the character of the homeless person front and center. This is, I think, the only thing most of us are thinking about while watching these videos. And, that fact alone is dangerous and a recipe for harm.

Even in the most critical of moments, when action is most crucial, we don’t show up for the most vulnerable, the most at-risk human beings in our communities. We don’t show up for homeless people. We are living a prime example right now, as the coronavirus has devastated our country in massive ways with no relief in sight. The response from our government was nothing short of reprehensible. It is homeless people, the poor and working class – the poorest demographics who are most affected by this pandemic.

We all know that COVID devastated NYC, and homeless people were not spared. In fact, the virus tore through NYC homeless shelters, and residents were kept in the dark.

I think it’s time to admit, to accept, the fact that homeless people are people. And, people deserve better than this, regardless of anything at all. Homeless people deserve to live – we all deserve to live. We are all human. We all deserve a chance to survive.

While I was homeless in 2017, I was surprised to learn that my own social worker was no different.

He too cared only about the character of the homeless person. Beyond that, he held firmly to the same damaging stereotypes about homeless people that many of us hold on to. This usually boils down to something like laziness. Whatever it may be, it is always at the fault of the homeless person, and no one and nothing else.

Perhaps it’s easier to package and ship and accept such a message? If it is always the homeless person’s fault, that means that their deaths are not our responsibility. Somehow, their deaths are justified.

That means that human resources, that the welfare state, that the government, is working perfectly fine. I’d like to think I am not the only person who has ever told you this, but man, none of this is true.

For the longest time I thought I didn’t have a “typical homeless story”.

I suppose, in some ways, my story is atypical – especially when considering the privileges I had prior to and after homelessness.

I became homeless in my early 20s. Although mixed race, I am white-passing, well-educated, and had a comfortable upbringing. I was never hungry as a child, and all my basic needs were met. There were even vacations! To Disneyland! However, none of those things prepared me for the events that took place, which inevitably lead me to suddenly having no place to live.

Over time, as I met and befriended many homeless and formerly homeless people, I noticed there aren’t really any typical how-I-came-to-be-homeless stories. At least not in the ways we might be imagining, assuming. It isn’t just a series of bad choices that lead us to the cold concrete before being swept up by the kindness of church goers or a nonprofit.

If anything, you could say that my formerly homeless “survivor” story would not make very good inspiration or poverty porn. My story would not encourage donations for your nonprofit, and that’s because it didn’t happen the way I, you, or anyone imagined. Instead, I fought a corrupt landlord in court for nine months with no representation, spent some time in a few different shelters then hired a broker to find me an apartment.

Homeless prevention services didn’t help me, nor did I receive any help being rehoused. Although I stand in the greatest city in the world (allegedly), I was told over and over again that I didn’t qualify for any services. There was always a ridiculously long waiting list or a box I didn’t check – a category I didn’t fit in.

And, you know, a lot of people have similar experiences as I did.

My story really isn’t that different from anyone else’s. In fact, my story is hardly any different from yours. Our stories could merge, blend, and bleed into each other pretty much seamlessly. My story is real in the way that not all homeless people follow a narrow path towards homelessness. Nor do they exit homelessness in the same ways either.

My story simply doesn’t support the homeless sector in any way, shape or form. But that’s often the case for many homeless people. This is entirely the reason why I find inspiration porn to be so troublesome. It pulls us away from real stories, real people, and how poverty actually works in this country.

Now we’re witnessing how poverty actually works. We’re watching how homelessness can happen and will happen. There’s no avoiding it when decades of poverty wages and skyrocketing rents collide with a deadly virus. It’s unavoidable when our government fails to act. Now we will watch the poorest people in our country become homeless, sick, or die.

Let us not forget: the story of homelessness can get re-written and re-packaged. It can get sold in such a way that benefits everyone but homeless people. Let’s not let that happen – not again. Let’s tell our story.

Jocelyn Figueroa


Jocelyn Figueroa studied Creative Non-Fiction at The New School and is a blogger and freelance writer based out of New York City. Formerly homeless, she launched her own blog discussing shelter life in New York City. Today, Jocelyn is on a mission to build connections through storytelling and creative writing.

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