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Seriously, Homelessness Is No Joke

On the one day every year when the world has an excuse for playing practical jokes – April Fools! – we ask, “Why is it seemingly acceptable to make homeless people the butt of the joke, no matter the day?”

A young woman sees a homeless man sleeping on a park bench. Unbeknownst to the man, she leans over and takes a selfie with him to share on social media. • Another person, a so-called “influencer” with over a million followers, replaces the filling in an Oreo cookie with toothpaste then gives the cookie to a hungry homeless man. The influencer records the homeless man’s reaction to eating the cookie for broadcast on YouTube. • And a homeless man is paid cash to be spray painted. The experience is photographed and, for entertainment purposes, is shared on social media. The homeless man is humiliated; days later he kills himself.

By now, readers should be disgusted; even angry. Stomachs should ache for the vulnerable and the abused. None of this is funny, and yet none of this is going away any time soon.

While the aforementioned examples live on digital and social media, you cannot discount their impact and influence. People today spend more time on their phones than they do in front of a television. The average person spends almost two and a half hours a day on social media, alone.

Social media desensitizes viewers; for decades, the same has been said of television and film. Fortunately, generation after generation has slowly come to realize that what was once considered entertaining actually never was. What was once considered acceptable no longer is. Here’s to never again seeing characters like the racist blackface of Al Jolson, the stereotypical Tonto from the TV series Lone Ranger, and John Cleese’s Hitler impersonation on Faulty Towers.

Today, more than ever, writers and comedians know to “punch up”, meaning to make jokes at the expense of someone who is of a higher level of power in terms of status or privilege. Good comedians never “punch down”; the jokes are considered cheap.

As what is funny evolves, why does it seem like homelessness is one of the exceptions? Are there not enough people who are homeless, or on the brink of homelessness, for the masses to be sympathetic? Do people who are homeless not have enough influence – read ‘enough buying power’ – for corporations to care?

Not long ago, teenage television sensation iCarly used the character ‘Hollywood the Hobo’ as a running joke during the series’ first four seasons. iCarly even hosted a hobo party and shared the images in a photo gallery on the show’s real website.

At its peak, the show had 11.2 million viewers, the vast majority being impressionable youth who today are in their late teens and early twenties.

iCarly’s approach to humour was certainly not innovative. Decades earlier, Red Skeleton featured ‘Freddie the Freeloader’ (pictured), a “happy hobo clown.” Skeleton once joked that ‘Freddie the Freeloader’ was never totally alone because he had fleas.

A whole generation worshipped Red Skeleton’s humour. The show ranked as high as #2 in Nielsen ratings, was nominated for 16 prime time Emmy awards, and won three.

When confronted about the abusive and stereotypical representation of people who are homeless, neither iCarly’s star nor the network, Nickelodeon, apologized for their portrayal of homelessness. The network removed the character from future episodes. ‘Hollywood the Hobo’ cannot be removed from past episodes; the only option is to pull those episodes. They remain in syndication today.

The insensitivity towards homelessness in the media – including social media – has a far-reaching impact on the audience and on those experiencing homelessness. The stereotypes add to the stigma.

Haven Toronto supports thousands of homeless men in their 50s, 60s, 70s or beyond. The men are food insecure and vulnerable. Some are all too familiar with ridicule and abuse in the community. The drop-in centre provides clients with an inviting, safe space where they are treated with respect and afforded their dignity.




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