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|March 16, 2012|
|In defense of homeless hotspots|
Bringing invisible people into the light of society
by George McDonald
Every day, in the hurry and fury of city life, so many New Yorkers, so many Americans, walk past the thousands of homeless people on our streets. The homeless are lying on the sidewalk, sitting against a building, begging on the subways and buses, looking desperate.
And what do we do about it? Maybe we give them a quarter or our leftover lunch, maybe we avert our eyes, maybe we don’t even notice them at all.
Twenty-five years ago, I spent 700 nights in a row handing out sandwiches to homeless people in Grand Central Terminal. I talked to them. I asked them what they wanted, what they needed to get back on their feet.And for 700 nights in a row, what did I hear time and time again? “Thank you for the sandwich, but what I really need is a room and a job to pay for it.”
All they wanted was a chance to pay their way and become productive citizens, so that they might not remain people invisible to the rest of society. For more than 20 years, the “men in blue” who clean New York City streets every day as participants of the Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing & Able program have been given just that — a paid work opportunity.
With a bucket and a broom, these men take to the streets and, for the first time, are able to interact with their fellow New Yorkers in a positive, productive way. People talk to them, ask them their names and thank them for the services they provide.
They begin to rebuild their lives and work toward self-sufficiency, self-worth and dignity.
So why the uproar, especially from those who are supposed to care for poor and forgotten people, over a marketing gimmick at the South by Southwest festival in Austin?
Courtesy of Manhattan-based marketing firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), some of the city’s homeless people were given T-shirts, printed with their names, that identified themselves as “homeless hotspots.” They carried devices that allowed them to offer a 4G wireless connection in exchange for donations.
What on Earth is wrong with that?
A lot, if you listen to some of the city’s leaders. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said BBH “has crossed a line from cynicism to exploitation.” Partnership for the Homeless CEO Arnold Cohen called it “more than absurd — it’s stomach-turning.”
I understand why some of the reactions have been critical — the brand name could have been better — but to take the initiative at face value without thinking beyond the catchphrase is to lose sight of the greater impact of this idea.
The plan represents an innovative way to help a traditionally disregarded population earn a little money and, more importantly, emerge from invisibility, into the light of society. Instead of a bucket and a broom, in this case they use a digital modem, offering a well-catered service to a tech-savvy crowd.
But the core concept is the same.
We ought to be giving kudos to BBH for giving these 13 individuals a platform to market a useful service while telling their stories.
How many people knew Clarence Jones’ name before Wednesday? How many people know it now? Clarence got the opportunity to wear a T-shirt that proudly states his name, identifying him with a purpose. Clarence is now a human being with value, and he’s helped stir quite a buzz.
For decades, the media have portrayed homeless people as strung out, crazy, and hopeless. These individuals, like the “men in blue” and like the hundreds I fed on the floor of Grand Central Terminal all those years ago, just want an opportunity.
I’d welcome forward-thinking concepts like this to New York City — and so would thousands of homeless people looking for a little more money and a little less anonymity.
McDonald is the founder and president of The Doe Fund.
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