Social Media

Unhoused People Are Not Entertainment

Homelessness is at a record high in the U.S. And now we are seeing the emergence of a burgeoning, exploitative brand of social media content where clout-chasing influencers delight in monetizing those struggling to survive.

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Last April, a prankster posted a video to YouTube showing himself asking a homeless man if he wants food. The prankster proceeded to eat a burger in front of the unhoused person, choosing to torment the man instead of offering him food.  

That video caused widespread outrage. But similar videos elicited laughter: Comedian Esteban Romero posted one in which he, in the guise of a homeless person, urinated in public and sexually harassed women. 

A Colorado housing developer created a whole YouTube channel under the moniker “BumsNDrones,” using drones to film homeless people without their consent, to subject them to public scrutiny.  

Police in Mobile, Alabama, posted photos on Facebook of a “homeless quilt,” composed of help signs from unhoused people. The online mockery has gotten so vicious, there is even content portraying people on the precipice of homelessness—process servers using TikTok to showcase people being served eviction papers; in one instance, we can see an unsuspecting tenant reacting to being served an eviction notice at 1 a.m. 

Most recently, senior advisor to Project 2025 and Trump’s Director of the Office of Personnel Management John McEntee posted a truly diabolical TikTok of his own—a chilling message of what may come should Trump take office come November.

This burgeoning brand of content is growing at a time of record-high homelessness in the country. In 2023, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released a report revealing that homelessness increased last year by 12 percent—its highest level in nearly two decades. The commodification of poverty and homelessness for entertainment is a telltale sign that society’s treatment and perception of homeless people hasn’t improved much since the 1800s, when cities throughout the U.S. had ordinances—nicknamed “ugly laws”—hiding unhoused people from public view. In 1867, San Francisco enacted the “unsightly beggar ordinance,” which made it unlawful for “any person, who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, to expose himself or herself to public view.” These ordinances framed homelessness as a disability and criminalized the public view of a homeless person at the same time that the circus—which largely relied on performances of disabled and poor people—grew to fame in America.  


Exploitative content of poor people for public consumption that surpasses ethical boundaries is not new.  “Poverty porn”—a term coined in the 1980s—originally described non-governmental organizations that captured the most dehumanizing moments of poor people of color across the world in an attempt to garner donations. The images might portray an African child with flies around their eyes dying in famine, or a person in South Asia wearing tattered clothes drinking from the hand of a white aid worker.  

In one of the first articles to frame this as pornography, Danish aid worker Jorgen Lissner famously wrote in The New Internationalist in 1981, “The public display of an African child with a bloated kwashiorkor-ridden stomach in advertisements is pornographic, because it exposes something in human life that is as delicate and deeply personal as sexuality, that is, suffering.” These images of human suffering, Lissner added, “put people’s bodies, their misery, their grief and their fear on display with all the details and all the indiscretion that a telescopic lens will allow.”


One could argue that global poverty exists, and censoring it for a privileged audience is whitewashing. However, the subjects being filmed have little to no agency over their image. Like the exploited homeless people who are filmed for pranks, the power imbalance blurs any consent. And even if the images amplify a greater cause, human suffering should not be a necessary component to motivate others to provide aid. While charts and graphs of data might not be as effective as a human face, viewer gratification in seeing humans in tattered clothes or in the grips of despair before they reach into their wallets is sadistic. This particular dynamic—privileged viewers wanting to be sure that people are “worthy” of their charitable donations—is what makes it poverty porn. This form of content is about taking control away from the subjects and demeaning them, subjecting them to further humiliation, and essentially having them audition for aid. 


Today, content demeaning homeless people indicates that this is a popular form of entertainment for some, all while several states are passing draconian policies against homeless people. An overwhelming majority of the U.S.—approximately 48 states—have laws criminalizing homelessness. To be more specific, it is unlawful in most of the country to sleep, sit, or lie on public grounds. This policy approach is not designed to alleviate homelessness; the goal is to remove homeless people from sight. 

Some states have policies to lessen interactions between unhoused people and those who want to help them: There are local counties in Louisiana and Texas that discourage handing money to homeless people—one state senator rationalized that it “only feeds addiction.” In some cases, states criminally charge or fine those who feed homeless people, like Texas, which fined a man for feeding unhoused people or Ohio, which arrested a pastor for allowing unhoused people to sleep in his church.  

Republican lawmakers in Kentucky have even proposed a bill, the Safer Kentucky Act, to make it easier for homeowners to use physical or deadly force against anyone who camps on their property.  Despite centuries of failed policies and a history of mistreatment of homeless people, the nation’s approach toward homelessness has not improved. On April 22, the Supreme Court will hear the oral argument for Grants v. Pass, a case that will determine whether regulating public camping constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. It’s the most significant case about homelessness the Court has heard in decades. We should not normalize or support content that mocks homeless people, and it is especially cruel to do so during a time when legal measures have escalated to vilify, incarcerate, and remove homeless people from public spaces.

With laws like the ones we’re seeing on the federal docket and throughout the country, it should come as little surprise that content mocking homeless people has grown more popular over the last few years. I’ve spent the past 12 years working as a tenants’ rights attorney, listening to the stories of low-income tenants facing eviction and homelessness. One of my first lessons on the job was that classism did not just stem from the wealthy to poor—sometimes low-income, housed residents were also classist against unhoused people.  When I gave a presentation on housing rights to residents at a public housing development, one person raised their hand to ask: “How do we keep the public housing authority from admitting formerly homeless people?” 

I don’t believe that any content that features an unhoused person is automatically exploitative—if the individual has power and agency to control their image, they can give voice to their own story. We should discourage content creators from exploiting the most economically vulnerable people in their most painful moments to build a brand, elicit laughter from millions of viewers, and even earn an income—while sharing none of the profits with those who need it most: their subjects. 

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