The time-honored tradition of taking people through lower-class areas populated by the homeless community, disadvantaged groups, and marginalized people for money is boldly carried on across the globe, from Haitian relief tours (“An adventure awaits you in Haiti!”) to, well, a “homeless experience” offered in Seattle for the low, low price of $2,000 for a three-day weekend you'll never forget.
Mike Momany, a long-time resident of Seattle, decided to take to the streets to get a taste of what it's like to be homeless. Now that he's done that, he's ready to monetize, with a flawless three-day, two-night itinerary for anyone with the greenbacks to cough up for the experience.
Visitors get to stay in a real homeless shelter, scam free meals, and even sleep on a park bench, should they so desire.
Momany promises a look at the “seedy side” of Seattle, a reminder of all the Victorian-era slumming tours where people took their fancy carriages to gaze at the slums of London, except that he offers a more immersive experience. Instead of being a passive observer, participants pretend to be homeless, complete with artfully designed costumes, street names, and fake backgrounds.
What's unclear is how much, if any, of the $2,000 (US) fee is routed back to social services, charities, and the organizations he uses in his tour.
While Momany speaks highly of Seattle's safety net, he doesn't discuss the fact that steering poverty tourists through shelters and meal lines inevitably takes resources away from people who actually need them because they're genuinely homeless and in need.
And, of course, there are no women allowed. The shelter he's using doesn't permit women. Shelters are often gender segregated, which is actually a serious issue for homeless families, trans members of the homeless community, and non-binary people as well as gender nonconforming people.
Some might argue that slumming and poverty tourism have their place as a way of generating empathy, connecting people with communities, and encouraging people to think outside their own experiences. Pretending to be homeless for three days doesn't provide insight into what it's like to be homeless, any more than other “empathy” simulations offer a real glimpse into the lives of others.
Homelessness is exhausting,
grinding, and complicated.
These are things people don't see when they're wearing reasonably clean clothes and skipping around on vacation.
They don't experience toothaches festering for weeks or months, sometimes leading to severe medical complications. They don't experience untreated mental illness. They aren't veterans on the street because of huge gaps in the system that's supposed to care for vets. They aren't trans people who can't access transition services. They aren't gay youth thrown out on the street by their families. They aren't young men separated from their mothers because of gendered shelter rules.
What these tours don't appear to be offering is an opportunity to explore the structural issues in Seattle, and elsewhere, that contribute to homelessness.
Perhaps instead of looking at homeless people to see why they're homeless, we need to look at the society around them. That's not something you can accomplish by dressing in ragged pants and panhandling on the street corner for a day.