Te-Erika Patterson is voluntarily homeless. She gave away her possessions, moved into a park, and is planning to remain there until "30 South Florida businesses agree to participate in a job fair to hire those she said need work the most but lack the confidence to do it themselves."
But most homeless women don't have a camera with them. And a website. Nor was it clear from the first news story I read how exactly she is teaching readers a lesson about homelessness by choosing to live on the streets. Because it sounded more like an outdoor sit-in to sway local businesses to hire homeless women (a great idea) with the focus being on inspiring homeless women by showing them how she went from nothing to something (a terrible idea).
Which made me ask the obvious question: can we truly replicate a situation with a stunt?
According to a PBS documentary on homelessness, the three leading causes of homelessness in single people (there were three other reasons given for homeless families) are mental illness, substance abuse, and lack of affordable housing. None of those, of course, is a lack of ability to pick yourself up by your bootstraps, the only skill Patterson can teach. More confusing is that many of her postings don't seem to be directed towards homeless women at all. She speaks about inspiring all women to make a change in their life -- which is a great message -- but I'm not sure how a woman in a dead-end job can make the leap from watching Patterson live without a home to the point that she should change her life.
As I unraveled the project, watching the YouTube videos she's making, it seemed to become less and less about homelessness. Which brings us to the crux of the problem -- the project doesn't seem to have a clear focus or goal beyond inspiring people. She calls it the Rebuild Your Life project.
She explains in a press release:
I'm doing this because many women never make a move toward their dreams because of the fear of losing everything. I hope to teach women that the things they own do not define them and that their biggest fear of an extreme life transition, if it ever happens, could be a blessing that sets them free.
And that's where the project officially falls apart. Because homelessness is not about failure -- it is a side effect of other problems. And I doubt anyone who is truly homeless would agree that it was a blessing that set them free.
The point is that if she chose to become homeless, she could also choose to not be homeless -- a choice that homeless women lack.
And it's that lack of choice, the suffocation of being in a nightmare of a situation without a personal, safe space that can't be replicated with a blog project. There were plenty of directions she could take this project that wouldn't leave me scratching my head -- for instance, she could have chosen to live amongst the homeless in order to educate the average reader on the plight of the homeless. She could have gone into shelters and taken woman after woman under her wing, helping them change their life and in turn, inspiring the reader by seeing the steps she takes.
At this point, with only one area business committed to her job fair and the job fair only weeks away, it makes the reader wonder -- will she continue to live on the streets for months or years in order to make her point or will she call this project a failure and go back home (a luxury that homeless women lack)? The first route would be inspiring. The second route, not so much.
We seem to be in the age of the blog stunt, and I think it behooves us to admit that we can't always recreate a situation and truly understand the emotional landscape of those living the situation without choice. Our blog stunts should have a clear point beyond the desire for a book deal. Blog stunts should teach first, illuminating a facet of life that the average reader doesn't get to see or may be unwilling to try themselves. There should be a clear focus, a point to be made beyond an amorphous belief that we can inspire people with our actions.
I hope that Te-Erika Patterson reaches her goal -- it sounds like it could be a life-changing job fair for homeless women. While she transparently admits that the funds that come from donations will go to both the shelter where she's living as well as a redevelopment of her blog and paying for the efforts of her editorial team, I'm hoping that she dedicates the bulk of that money to helping the women she is living amongst. The ones who don't have a choice to return to an apartment and try the next idea.
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