For the past year, Huston-Tillotson University associate professor Jeff Wilson has been the subject of more than two hundred articles thanks to his unusual living arrangement: the dude has spent most nights between February 2014 and February 2015 sleeping in a 33-square-foot dumpster on the school’s campus. The dumpster has got little but a mattress, A/C window unit, and a false floor under which he can keep his clothing and cooking equipment.
The backstory on Wilson’s decision to begin the experiment is basically what you might expect, if you had to guess. As the Washington Post explained in its exit-interview with Wilson, after he moved out of his dumpster home:
[H]e was living in a comfortable, 3,000-square-foot Brownsville, Tex., home with a large walk-in closet, an easily accessible bathroom and a $1,600 monthly mortgage payment. He had a tenure-track professorship at a state university, an hour-long commute and a matrimonial social arrangement with a fellow professional.
Today, Wilson has none of those things — and insists that he’s never been happier.
Between then and now, there was a divorce, a new job in a new city, a surrendering of worldly possessions, a new social arrangement with a new romantic partner and — perhaps most importantly — an olive green dumpster that he called home.
Wilson’s stunt got lots of attention because the ideas behind Wilson’s dumpster life are fashionable. The “Tiny Houses” movement has picked up speed in the wake of the 2007-2008 recession. IKEA stores, perhaps in a nod to their European roots, make big shows of demonstrating how comfortable a two-hundred-square-foot living space can be.
According to the FAQ on the Dumpster Project website, the focus of Wilson’s year-long stunt was much bigger than just one professor:
This whole endeavor is way more than a weird professor living in a metal wastebasket. Beyond the obvious goal of creating one of the smallest sustainable living spaces on the planet, the project is heavily focused on engaging students and enhancing the Huston-Tillotson campus where it’s located. Ultimately we’re partnering with students to create a lively (and entertaining) discussion about what a good, sustainable life can look like and how to make that life available to more communities.
Although Wilson’s website may have noted that “if all goes well, Professor Dumpster has stated that he is not opposed to taking up permanent residence in his dumpster dwelling,” he’s out of it now—and of course he’s on to his next project.
The new social experiment or whatever it is that Wilson will be undertaking is called “99 Nights ATX,” and it involves sleeping on 99 different couches, over 99 days, in Austin. Pretty self-explanatory, really. According to the new project’s website, it was a response to the idea “that dissecting and debating the inexorable winds of change is practically the city’s unofficial pastime—right behind music festivals and craft beer tastings.”
Let’s just quickly acknowledge the irony that a guy whose famously minimalist lifestyle included “eight or nine bowties” is now mocking hipster trappings like music festivals and craft-beer tastings. Okay, moving on, his project appears to be a bit of Morgan Spurlock-like first-person investigation: Wilson will sleep on couches to see a variety of ways that people in Austin live, with a photographer and writer in tow to document the experience. He is also seeking sponsors.
But how revelatory can 99 Nights ATX really be? The project will limit him to a self-selected group of homes by its nature—he can only go where he’s invited, obviously—and it’s unclear why he needs sponsors for something that will have him sleeping rent-free in other people’s living rooms, though it seems mostly harmless. (update: after this post went live, Wilson removed the “partners” link from the 99 Nights ATX website; the page is cached here.)
Still, if your reaction to all of Wilson’s projects is that something feels off, well, you’re not alone. Most stories about Wilson feature commentary from readers who take issue with the fact that he’s becoming a minor celebrity through these gimmicks, and that’s understandable.
There are already people who live in dumpsters without A/C units or garden gnomes or eight to nine bowties, of course—it’s just that they’re homeless. They’re unlikely to end up enjoying media attention from “The Atlantic, MSNBC, NPR, BBC, HuffPo, USA Today, CNET, Fast Company, The Guardian,The Weather Channel, Al Jazeera & 200+ others,” as the page on his 99 Nights website boasts. They don’t get sponsorship opportunities at all, and they’re unlikely to be able to parlay their experience into a book deal, something Wilson told the Washington Post was on his agenda.
Similarly, there are a lot of people who sleep on couches whose “social experiment” is based on having nowhere else to go. The National Coalition for the Homeless reports that an estimated 1.65 percent of the population is “couch-homeless,” or people who have no permanent residence but stay with friends or family. In Dallas youth shelter Promise House claimed in 2008 that roughly one thousand homeless teenagers in the city are “sofa-surfers” (full disclosure: my mother-in-law is the former executive director of Promise House). In the UK, sofa-surfing homelessness is an issue getting serious attention as part of a campaign to consider the mostly-invisible homeless population.
Wilson’s website talked about sustainability and furthering the availability of sustainable living to more communities, but his own project was buoyed by extensive corporate sponsorship from Ford and Freescale as well as other corporations, and a pair of local hipster home outfitting retailers interested in being associated with Wilson’s impressive media reach. (If any of these sponsors want to invest in things that benefit people in need of low-cost sustainable housing, we might suggest a few other worthy causes.)
Also, living in a dumpster is also actually illegal, unless you happen to own the dumpster in question. (Wilson was able to secure permission to occupy his particular dumpster from the university.)
None of that makes the fun, quirky “experiments” that Wilson is performing wrong, but it does make them kind of obtuse. Wilson’s experiments are fundamentally about homelessness—you don’t move into a dumpster unaware of the association—but when he talks about “What does home look like in a world of ten billion people” by celebrating the gimmicks behind what he’s doing, there’s an important thing he’s missing: for many people, it just looks a lot like living in a f#%$ing dumpster.
We certainly don’t wish Wilson ill as he brings his bowties into 99 different people’s homes, but it’s hard not to see these projects as very interesting ways for the guy to get on television and in magazines, creating opportunities for corporate partners to co-brand #DumpsterLife or #CouchSurfing as a quirky way to challenge middle-class conceptions of how we live. But if the majority of the time we spend talking about people who live in dumpsters or on other people’s couches involves a university professor on the hunt for a book deal, we’re not creating an interesting dialogue. We’re avoiding one.
(AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Laura Skelding.)