While the Daily Post was on vacation last week, Austinites Sandy Shook and Joseph Costello blew up on YouTube with a video that they made. Shook, a homeless man, went with Costello, a young filmmaker, to a local thrift store, where he bought a blazer and a pair of slacks. Costello than filmed Shook standing outside of the Scarbrough Building on Sixth and Congress, asking passers-by for a buck that he was short to pay for his Subway sandwich, or fifty cents he was missing for his bus fare.
Invariably, the people Costello and his camera captured Shook interacting with are respectful, kind, and generous. Then they flip the exercise: Shook changes into a ratty t-shirt and dirty jeans and asks people the same questions, and suddenly no one makes eye contact with him. Many walk past without acknowledging that he’d addressed them at all. One shouts “No!” at him before Shook even opens his mouth to speak.
As social experiments go, Shook’s and Costello’s doesn’t necessarily yield any surprising results—that homeless people are treated poorly isn’t exactly news—but it’s nonetheless a stark contrast to see how rude people are to the homeless version of Shook, compared to the one in the jacket and slacks. It also captures what is presumably one of the more alienating and difficult parts of homelessness: There are places a person can go to get a free meal, and Austin, at least, has both a fair number of shelters and camping spots where homeless people can sleep, but the constant refusal from others to acknowledge your basic humanity can’t be easy to deal with.
It’s fascinating to watch as Shook receives the dollar he requests for his sandwich without hesitation when he looks like someone who rarely needs a spare buck, while he’s ignored when his situation appears more desperate. Obviously none of us can be expected to feed the whole street, but watching Shook’s increasing frustration in the video as he’s ignored, avoided, and yelled at suggests that, perhaps, stopping for a moment to make eye contact and offer a polite, “I’m sorry, sir, I can’t help you today” would go a long way nonetheless.
Those who want to help Shook are invited to do so through a GoFundMe account set up by Costello. Costello’s own language regarding Shook might be a bit troubling (he promises donors who might be concerned that Shook won’t use the money wisely that he “will make sure of it,” which is, at the very least, a bit condescending), but perhaps that just reveals how deeply-ingrained the treatment of homeless people as without dignity or respect can be.