Homeless charity campaigns using social media spark controversy
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A 20-year-old Toronto woman didn’t think encouraging people to hand out pizza to the homeless would kick-start an Internet trend and generate plenty of flack, but that’s exactly what’s happened to Noura Al-Mutairi’s Pass the Pizza movement.
The initiative asks people to use social media to post photos of themselves as they donate pizza to a homeless person with the hashtag #passthepizza. It spawned from a class assignment Al-Mutairi, a Ryerson University new media student, received, and has garnered acts of giving not only around this city but as far away as Australia, Saudi Arabia and France.
Other movements like BirthdaySelFree and Feed the Need follow the same premise and have attracted similar attention.
However the ethics behind these campaigns that harness social media for charity at the expense of the others are stirring up controversy. One homeless advocate opposes the movements so strongly she even refused to comment for this story because she didn’t want to give them any more attention.
Street pastor Doug Johnson Hatlem, who has worked with shelters and homeless people across North America, calls movements such as Pass the Pizza “a mixed bag” because they generate interest in donating, but can come at the expense of those they are trying to help.
He supports calling attention to the issue of homelessness, but says the power imbalance and food at stake can detract from the need to address homelessness with housing solutions. He worries there is unnecessary pressure placed on homeless people who desperately need food, but must sacrifice their identity and sometimes dignity to accept donations.
“I’m sure some homeless people would say anonymity matters to them and they don’t want to be in a photo,” he says, noting many homeless people are in the country illegally. “For someone to say ‘I am going to give you something, but wait, take a photo with me’ that could be a real burden, but quite offensive and scary for them.”
University of Toronto social media researcher Jenna Jacobson agrees that these campaigns can demean the homeless, even if that is not the goal.
“Consent is key,” she says. “Some people would like to have their photo taken and some would not.”
She has qualms about photographing the homeless after offering them food, but doesn’t dismiss these charities because they capture attention — a commodity that can do wonders for charities.
She says those looking to prove what positive effects these campaigns are having need look no further than the ALS ice bucket challenge and Feed the Need, which both generated traction and big money — the ALS challenge raised more than $31 million.
“Just because the person publicizes their charitable giving does not immediately make it disingenuous,” Jacobson says.
That’s exactly the point Al-Mutairi has had to repeat critics who call her charitable efforts an attention grab. She insists she wasn’t trying to intimidate or demean anyone with Pass the Pizza.
Her goal was to impress her professor who had asked his students to use social media to showcase the potential of the medium. (She’s yet to receive a grade, but has her fingers crossed for an A.) After that, her hope was to inspire people to give to charity.
Because people already post selfies or photos of elaborate dishes they’re about to nosh, Al-Mutairi thought this would be a way of doing that for good.
“By posting the picture, what we are trying to do is get people to see it so they go out and do it too,” Al-Mutairi says.
Two businesses are on board. Toronto pizzeria The Big Slice Pizza has donated slices for Al-Mutairi and her classmates to give to the homeless and American clothing company Arabeezy has waged a challenge. It will donate to the homeless the same number of pizza slices as “likes” to the post with the most likes on Instagram before Christmas.
Mohsin Zaman, the man behind BirthdaySelFree, a campaign encouraging people to collect birthday restaurant treats and distribute them to the homeless, says each time he has asked for a homeless person to pose for a snap in exchange for food they’ve been happy to do so.
He disagrees with those who think it highlights a power imbalance.
“The bottom line is people can think whatever they want,” he says. “You’re filling someone’s hunger and that is the most important part.”