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Slumming: the Victorians might have brought it to new heights, but we certainly haven't stopped with the poverty tourism since then.
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.
Entrepreneur Mike, a long-time resident of Seattle, decided to take to the streets this summer to get a taste of what it's like to be homeless, and 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 homeless shelter, scam free meals, and even sleep on a park bench, should they so desire.
He 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 from his site is how much, if any, of that $2,000 cost is routed back to social services, charities, and the organizations he uses in his tour. While Mike 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. He even encourages participants to consider panhandling, something that someone who's just paid $2,000 to pretend to be homeless for three days clearly needs.
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 nonbinary people as well as gender nonconforming people), so, sorry, ladies, you'll have to wait for your slumming opportunity. Who knows, if Mike's endeavor takes off, maybe there'll be a competing ladies' special across town.
I, like a lot of the xoJane editors, am thoroughly grossed out by this whole thing, and by the ongoing trend of poverty tourism. It's especially disturbing that poverty tourism has become so hipsterized -- remember how homeless men were used as WiFi hotspots at SXSW? How about the way in which gentrifiers push into low-income communities for their “community” and “flavor” and “diversity,” taking turns bragging about the risks they run to live among the people? (Or, for that matter, how true artistes of the 19th century took to drafty, run-down garrets to prove their dedication to the arts? I'm looking at you, tuberculosis.)
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. However, they're little more than poverty porn, designed to display people like freakish exhibits for the titillation of attendees, rather than to actually address the structural inequalities that create homelessness, or doom thousands of homes in Detroit, or leave communities gutted after devastating hurricanes.
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.
There's a strong push by many organizations to promote empathy, along with which comes a reduction of problems to the personal, rather than the structural -- in this instance, reducing homelessness to something that happens to you because of something you have (or haven't) done. We're supposed to pity members of the homeless community, to feel bad for them, perhaps, but also to assign guilt, asking ourselves what happened to make them homeless. At the same time, we reassure ourselves that such a thing could never happen to us.
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, and that's not something you can accomplish by dressing in ragged pants and panhandling on the street corner for a day. Sure, you can get a vague appreciation of how homeless people are treated, but that's not going to tell you anything about how to help your community.
The US is facing a yawning class divide, fewer opportunities than ever before for young Americans, and a host of other social problems, like wounded veterans returning to a country that isn't willing or, apparently, able, to deal with them. Defenders of poverty tourism like this who want to rely on the idea that it somehow improves the world need to rethink their stance, and admit that what they're promoting is just entertainment, someone's idea of a fun time, a novel and innovative vacation.