A young man takes a selfie in front of a homeless man lying on a bench, the young man is holding money.
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One March morning, as I browsed the Youtube trending page, a video entitled “Giving a Homeless Man $20,000” caught my attention. The clickbait thumbnail featured two halves of the homeless man’s face, seemingly to represent his life before and after the $20,000 was given to him: on the left side, the man stood unhappily in front of a dumpster with mud on his face, and, on the right side, he beamed in front of a modern business building wearing a suit. Surprised by the video’s unscrupulousness, I decided to click on the thumbnail and take notes as I watched. 

The opening was, of course, two unskippable Youtube ads, meaning that the creator had monetized the video and was profiting off of each view. Sitting atop his $3,249 TRX90, he explained, “Today, I’m gonna go find someone on the street that’s down and out, and I’m gonna show ‘em that we love them.” 

The video quickly cut to Jimmy Darts, the creator of the video, asking a houseless man, Tom, if he would like to participate in a game of hopscotch. Much to Tom’s shock, Jimmy immediately awarded him $500 “for playing hopscotch and being a kid again.”

Over the course of the Youtube video, Jimmy spoils Tom with a brand new phone, two nights at a Hilton hotel, $500 in cash, brand new dentures and meals at local restaurants. After seven minutes of b-reel of Tom’s “brand new life” off the streets, Tom is hired at a car mechanic shop. Like a happy ending to a movie, Tom fervently thanks Jimmy for his help as the video comes to a close.

The “Youtube charity complex,” as I like to call it, is the phenomenon of Youtubers filming themselves giving large sums of money, food or other goods to specific individual homeless people on the street. In some instances, Youtubers add an additional game-like element to their charity by putting the homeless person through challenges to assess their character before richly rewarding them if they “behave well” or play along, just like how Jimmy gave the money to Tom only after he played a game of hopscotch. While this Youtube charity complex may seem well-intentioned, exploitative motives lurk beneath the surface of its supposed benefits.

For one, the Youtube charity complex thrives on giving homeless individuals things that are hard to refuse — money, food, clothing, temporary shelter, etc. — but with a caveat that the Youtuber must also personally profit from the interaction, whether socially or monetarily. Instead of simply making a charitable donation to homeless people or homeless shelters, many Youtuber donors provide these donations on the basis of reciprocity. They expect something (often permission to film the interaction) in return for their generosity, rather than doing it solely out of the “goodness of their heart.” This is the basis of the inherently exploitative nature of the Youtube charity complex. 

Take the aforementioned video for example. One of the most important questions to ask in this situation is whether or not the Youtuber would’ve made the charitable donation or done the charitable act if it hadn’t been filmed. Unfortunately, for many Youtube charity complex users, giving money and goods to the homeless isn’t a deed done exclusively out of goodwill, but a deed accomplished for the additional purposes of garnering social and financial clout. When Youtubers post videos like these, they get to show their subscribers just how generous they are (social clout) while making money off of the Youtube advertisements sprinkled throughout (financial clout). By monetizing these “charitable” Youtube videos, the creator financially profits off of their supposed “selflessness” while simultaneously gaining social brownie points in the eyes of their followers. So, when the goodness of the charitable act is boiled down, only self-serving motives remain.  

This phenomenon grossly takes advantage of homeless people who lack a real choice to say no to the Youtubers who want to film their charity, due to the stark power difference between them. If the homeless person says no, they might not be able to ensure their short-term survival on the street. If they say yes, the Youtuber will use their face as clickbait, play sad music in the background of their tale of struggles to elicit an emotional reaction from their viewers (and subsequently, donations) and profit off of their own “charity.” While the charitable act is not coercive, having homeless individuals participate in a Youtube video absolutely is. 

Moreover, the Youtube charity complex fuels the flawed notion that homelessness can be solved on an individual level. A Youtuber giving a homeless person a large sum of money, for example, does not work to alleviate the systemic causes of homelessness, such as unaffordable housing, stagnant wages, domestic violence, racial disparities, poor treatment of veterans, ableism and lack of affordable childcare. Even if we were to give each homeless person a large sum of money, this does nothing to tackle the problem of homelessness at its root, revealing Youtubers’ actions as merely performative band-aid solutions.

With all the money and influence that famous Youtubers hold, they could make a much more tangible and positive impact on the homeless community if they volunteered at mutual aid foundations, donated to homeless crisis response teams or harm reduction programs, funded job training programs for homeless individuals or made charitable donations to local homeless coalitions in their area. But instead, these Youtubers consciously decide to go against the advice of homeless coalitions for how to best help the houseless community for their own personal gain. 

The Youtube charity complex is an overtly exploitative system designed to leverage homeless individuals’ housing status for the personal financial and social gain of the Youtuber. While these videos, at first glance, may appear harmless or even advantageous for the homeless person, the unfortunate reality is that these “charitable” donations would be better spent on resources that benefit the houseless community as a whole rather than a few homeless individuals. What’s more, spreading the belief that giving money to homeless people is the solution to the homelessness crisis undermines the layered systemic issues that actually cause homelessness in the first place. And, most importantly, these Youtube charity complex videos should no longer be touted as beneficial to the homeless community, but rather acknowledged as harmful and exploitatively motivated to accumulate social and financial clout.

Sophia Lehrbaum is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at lehrbaum@umich.edu.