Editorial: Homeless Hotspots and Sandwich Boards

Since the time of Charles Dickens in the 1800s, the poor and downtrodden have been used in various ways in society, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. The premises and outcomes of this kind of hiring of the disadvantaged are up for review and one ought to understand their clear implications about how a society treats its poor.

As long ago as Dickens’ time, the disadvantaged were hired to walk around the streets of London wearing two wooden boards, front and rear, with advertisements on them for various shops and stores. Sure, these people were paid a pittance for their labors, which was better than nothing and maybe that evening they could eat a better meal than usual.

But it’s a conundrum.

This is clearly exploitation of the otherwise helpless who have no choice but to take the bargain, although the worker does get something in return: money. But in this Faustian bargain, the poor person is actually only given a brief respite from his torment, only to be returned the next day into his saddened state of affairs with no hand up to better his station in life in a more permanent way.

One finds, in our modern times, similar conundrums that are thinly disguised forms of sandwich boards.

For example, in some university towns, there are endless medical studies that need volunteers, and pay them little but use their bodies and time. Some studies are lucrative and long-lasting, maybe a few months. Others are $25 for a day and are one-offs. Most people on the low end of the study and survey world are homeless or very poor and must do this. Must they do it? Well, maybe their choices are more limited than others due to affliction, or illness, or bad choices in life, or they just plain need the money.

In addition, there was a recent music industry conference where they paid the homeless to wear advertising shirts and also had them push mobile Internet connections though the large crowd. They got some money and donations in return. But one asks; morally, is this not just another example of sandwich-boarding?

It’s hard to say, actually. One can make a case either way. In a society, or more broadly, a civilization, one is generally paid for one’s work. It’s just the terms of the bargain that makes or breaks the feather of helpfulness or exploitation.

Is it a good thing for Joe’s Pizza or Jimmy’s Dry Cleaners to donate 100 clean new t-shirts to a homeless shelter with the company logo and phone number and website all over the shirt so that they be worn and seen by those meandering through a town or city during the daylight hours? It’s a tossup. It might lean a bit towards exploitation but still walks a thin line of helping someone in need.

Then there are the genuine cases of a large company donating 300 new and unused golf shirts with a corporate logo which were unused at the last company outing. The irony then, of course, is that the poor and homeless get the shirts and find them comfortable, but wind up walking around town with a shirt that says “Megacompany Financial Services Annual Golf Outing 2012” on it. This kind of surrealism doesn’t address their true plight and help them get ahead in life. The counter argument is that it’s a clean shirt and will give them comfort. True enough.

Then there’s a very controversial term and practice called “Bumvertising” which takes advantage of poor people to carry shirts or signs or whatever for advertising purposes around town. This is defined in one source as “a form of informal employment in which a homeless person is paid to display advertising.”

Ultimately, where’s the true empowerment to actually change their station in life? Dribs and drabs don’t help in the long term. So, with recent reports of homeless Internet hotspot selling at the convention, one is still left wondering just whether it helps at all in the long run to get people reintegrated back into society’s mainstream.

A very wise person once said something like, “show me your poor and your prisons and I’ll tell you all about your society and civilization.”

One is still left wondering, although one hopes for the higher ground to fully help disadvantaged people for the long haul in partnership with them.

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