At the beginning of this month, a woman from the staff of a startup called Vayable wrote to us to see if I wanted to create “a tour of sorts of the best places in the Tenderloin” for their site. After all, she had created the Go Homeless for a Day one and was very proud of it (as their site is, acording to their about page, “for explorers who crave authentic trips”). Initially, I wanted to write back stating that if she did actually put that up, I would make fun of her for doing it as I find this type of thing to be that tricky point at which dumb and shit come together to form criminally lame.
Well, in the end I didn’t bother writing back and yet, I didn’t have to make fun of her as Jay Barmann took care of that very well in an SFist article:
Vayable CEO Jamie Wong says, “Large numbers of tourists spend vacation time and money to tour the slums in Bombay or to volunteer in impoverished parts world. This experience is no different.” Well, sure Jamie. I guess it just seems like a first when it comes to exploiting the poor in our country and treating them like animals in a zoo.
While this initially just seems like “poverty tourism”, this is also an offshoot of “voluntourism”. We see a rise in this type of thing in the Tenderloin during the summer (hello summer vacation missionaries), and it simply does not work. People think that popping in and either seeing the impoverished in the world firsthand or doing some uninformed short term work there is actually of some benefit when it’s really for themselves. On the ground, it fails the communities which are in theory to be helped.
Sure, while nibbling on your boiled goose after a lively game of squash at the club, you’re able to tell all about the time you spent helping/seeing the poor in Blah dee Blah, Somewhere and you believe that your telling about it is actually worth something (hint, it’s not). But, the problems in the world these days are not from lack of money for projects, volunteers to work on the projects, or awareness campaigns. There is already too much of all of this being thrown around without much thought other than making the donors and those who re-tweet a funding campaign feel good about themselves. What’s needed is long term, structural work with concrete and well-defined, absolute goals that look down the road decades, not days.
And this is what is continually thrashing the Tenderloin. Church groups who pop in to feed and proselytize for a Sunday or a Thanksgiving, or people who volunteer for a couple of months at a homeless shelter are all guilty of the same thing as anyone who goes on Vayable’s “Go Homeless for a Day” activity, in that they’re all just tourists (“leave your bed, television and car behind”). For those who live here this does nothing and accomplishes nothing except to perpetuate a homeless industry in which we all lose. In the case of Vayable, it also works to disgust me, so I guess that it does something in the end.