Americans love a feel-good story. That is why Billy Ray Harris, who happens to be homeless, was recently thrust to national celebrity status. As the story goes, a woman–Sarah Darling–decided to be a not-so-selfish person and put money into Billy Ray’s cup as he asked for change on the streets of Kansas City, Mo. Not only did Darling leave change for the gentleman, she mistakenly dropped her diamond engagement ring into his donation cup. Later realizing the mistake, she returned to inquire about a lost possession with Harris, prompting Billy Ray to respond by saying “Was it a ring?” Surprised by the act, Sarah Darling gave Harris a cash reward on the spot, and her fiancé even began collecting donations for the man online, which at this point has garnered approximately $170,000.
With an average over $20 per donation, it would appear that Americans are showing that they are concerned with the lives and well-being of people who are down on their luck. But, I do not see it as such. This is very much as story of class and stereotypes.
First, donations poured in on behalf of Billy Ray Harris, because he proved to not the stereotype of a homeless person in America. The story, and cause behind Billy Ray’s support, has grown so widespread, because it is viewed by many as extraordinary. Why extraordinary? Because the stereotype–or our default positions/assumptions–of homeless people is that they lack character and moral values. We show this in our distasteful comments at and toward them–such as “get a job–and the utter lack of attention we pay to them in attempts to avoid even looking in their direction. I shouldn’t have to go into detail about how the character and moral assumptions about homeless people translates to “anyone who is homeless caused their own homelessness and deserves to be in the circumstance.” If there is any denying that Americans turn their noses down at homeless individuals, one should seek to rectify their own character and moral dispositions.
Every time, a homeless person proves to be as honest and forthright as other individuals who do not happen to be in the position of homeless persons, there is widespread delight and surprise–as if a homeless person is automatically a “bad person.” Remember the story in 2010 of Jay Valentine, the homeless man whom was loaned a credit card by Merrie Harris? After spending about $25, Valentine returned the credit card to the surprise of numerous people and was even called “Most Honest Homeless Man in the City”. Well, because most of us believe that homeless people cannot be loyal–or all are thieves–Valentine was given the title, and everyone rejoiced over a homeless person who did what most of us would have certainly done–return someone’s possession.
Secondly, support for Harris is more a show of identification with Sarah Darling. Sarah Darling’s situation is the classic tale of a middle class woman in distress. I’m sure many of the donors and people who share the feel-good story with friends and family sympathize with a middle class woman’s torment of losing a luxurious item of excess more than the mere fact of a homeless man sleeping in the streets and begging for assistance. Attraction to this entire incident is equally to more about the return of the symbolic ring–not to mention the blood, sweat, and servitude that went into creating the material object in the first place.
In a twisted sort of way, Billy Ray is one of the rather lucky homeless persons. He was fortunate enough to be in the position to have the ring mistakenly dropped into his cup. He is lucky that the woman, who was generous enough to donate pocket change to him, was given a ring from a man who would eventually use his knowledge of GiveForward.Com to collect donations. He is lucky to have had someone, and others, who took interest in the story to begin with–whom would report the event. He was even fortunate to have benefited from stereotypes of homeless people as shiftless & dishonest and people’s sympathy for a middle class woman in distress over the lost over her symbolic possession.
But, what about the many more homeless men and women who were not presented with the opportunity to show America that they, too, are honest and are not molds of the stereotype. They are the countless who continue to be stepped over and sidestepped as obstacles in our various journeys to acquire excess and luxurious symbols of wealth, class, commitment, and love–numerous who are never even afforded the opportunity to show us their character. There are so many whom Americans view as less than and are automatically assumed to not be as honest as Billy Ray from Kansas City or Jay from Manhattan.
How many of us would it have even made it possible to have lost a ring in the cup of of beggar? How many of us donate to the homeless people we see whose story we do not know as told to us though the media. How many seemingly unbelievable acts by the less fortunate go unnoticed? How many of us actually take time to know learn the stories and characters of those whom we attempt to deem invisible and a drag on society? The answers to those questions are certainly more unbelievable than the acts of Billy Ray Harris and Jay Valentine, and definitely would not be feel-good story for the front pages.Tweet