Just 48 Hours Homeless—A Critique

By Luke Lyman-Barner, Staff Writer

Gwyneth Paltrow showed up in the news the other day, and it irked me. I like her—I think she’s done good work in film, and I can appreciate that she applies herself to some causes that she cares about.

A cause is why she popped up in the media again—but in this instance, I take issue.

She’s chosen to take on the Food Bank NYC Challenge, a campaign headed by celebrity chef Mario Batali, where participants may only spend a total of $29 on food for one week—the same allotment afforded to beneficiaries of the newest incarnation of the food stamp program. The theory is that living on crumbs for a few days will somehow cause more people to vote for politicians who support sustaining or expanding food stamp programs.

In spite of the campaign’s admirable intentions, I question whether or not it’s really beneficial. I’m hardly the first; opinion pieces on TIME and the Huffington Post critical of Paltrow’s participation in the challenge are presently the top two results of a Google search for her name. Darlena Cunha, the author of the TIME article, argued that Paltrow was making a “vacation” out of the lives of the poor, and that if she “truly wanted to make a difference,” she would do this, that, or the other thing.

I feel it’s perhaps unfair to insult her for what I’m inclined to believe is meant to be a show of support for the impoverished, but it does call for examination of what campaigns like these really do.

The thing Cunha’s tirade was trying to point out is that the Food Bank NYC Challenge creates a dangerous illusion that its participants truly understand what the poor suffer through every day. The Food Bank NYC website says it explicitly on the challenge’s page: “by truly understanding what our friends and neighbors are going through, we will be better equipped to find solutions.”

Truly understand,” says the master chef.

Someone like me can make $29 a week work. Paltrow could make some gourmet crap on $29 a week (what else could she be doing with all those limes?). Somebody in a poverty situation? Extremely unlikely.

Many will not have the requisite education to know how to make sure they’re getting good nutritional value in whatever they’re buying with that money, and even for those who do have that knowledge, it’s unlikely they’ll have the time to spend cooking for themselves and any family they may have, or even the cookware to make whatever meals might meet their nutritional needs.

These are just a few of the problems that are staggeringly common in a world of poverty that cannot be understood just by living on $29 a week.

History is rife with examples of the disasters that occur when the privileged classes and groups fail to understand the perspectives and imperatives of the underprivileged. I’m not here to give a history lesson, but consider that Congress thinks it knows what the poor need, and it’s trying to reduce the amount of assistance they have bigger fish to fry than roughly 47 million people on subsistence diets or worse, they must suppose.

This brings us to Pi Kappa Alpha’s 48 Hours Homeless program. Again, I know these things are born of the best intentions, and I admire the fact that Pike was collecting donations for the Old Savannah City Mission, but what could arguably be called a camping trip to the Student Union cannot be equated with true homelessness.

Cunha might go so far as to call the program an insult to the homeless, and while I’d disagree and argue with her about word choice, I would have to agree that the program isn’t the best possible manifestation of our desire to remedy the homelessness problem.

The March 12th Inkwell article about this year’s iteration of the event has fraternity members quoted as saying the event was somehow both a “blast” and something that made them “understand” what the homeless go through. If it was, indeed, a blast, it’s impossible to imagine that there was any real understanding going on.

Misunderstanding isn’t directly harmful, but it can lead to ineffective or even harmful approaches to the problems we face.

For that reason, I’m compelled to implore the future leaders that Armstrong is raising not to underestimate the injustice of homelessness because of a comparison between 48 Hours Homeless and the harsh realities that thousands in Chatham County alone face every day. Further, I’d ask that everyone who seeks change, not just the Greeks, be mindful of the way we go about activism and how it modifies our perspectives. We need every campaign to count. Let’s be conscious and become an even stronger force for social justice.