TIME Opinion

Using Homeless Guys as Reality Show Props is Offensive

In this viral video, the only reason for giving these homeless guys money is not to help them, but to exploit them, which is what the video creators don’t get.

The viral YouTube video, “Making Homeless Guys Arm Wrestle For Money!” opens on a sidewalk with a 20-year-old guy in a black V-neck. He gives this introduction: “What’s up guys! I’m Coby from Model Pranksters… today we’re in New York City, we’re gonna find two homeless people, put them up to an arm wrestle. The winner gets $100.” It has been viewed more than 8 million times.

Harmless enough, right? A couple of guys down on their luck get a crack at enough cash to buy their next five or ten meals and we get to watch. (Or, maybe you’re thinking the vary premise sounds patently offensive. But let’s keep going.)

Coby Persin and his sidekick, Justin, head off in search of a vagrant with a meaty bicep. They stumble upon a middle-aged African-American man, panhandling, whose pants are ripped and barely cover his legs. The man agrees to participate in a video for $100, without knowing what he will be asked to do. The Model Pranksters find his opponent and inform the two that they will be arm-wrestling with the winner pocketing $100 and the loser leaving empty-handed. But, there’s a catch. With the competitors out of view, Justin tells us that even the loser will get $50.

Doesn’t that just warm your heart?

The arm-wrestling match ends with the African-American guy winning and Persin handing him two $50 bills. That’s when the video’s big payoff happens. The winner looks at his opponent and says, “Robert, I know how it is, man, working tough, no harm no foul,” offering one of the $50 bills to the match’s loser. The two gladiators hug, and Persin is stunned. “This is like one of the most inspirational things I’ve ever seen,” he says. He gives them both another $100, then some bear hugs, and they all part ways.

Since its posting, close to 100,000 people have given the video a thumbs up, compared to just 4,641 who awarded it a thumbs down. This is Persin’s most popular video but not his first. That was “How to get any girl’s number,” in which he and his buddies would walk up to girls on Coney Island, ask to use their phone, call themselves with it, et voila! “We stole their number,” he says. More recent titles include “Stealing from the Homeless” and “Picking up Girls with Akon and Snoop Dogg Songs.”

Persin’s “Model Pranksters” channel (named because he once was an Abercrombie and Fitch model) generates enough views to bring in between $6,000 and $10,000 a month, he says. He no longer has to work on anything but these videos. The arm-wrestling “prank” was actually meant to convince potential viewers that they were about to watch “douchebags making homeless guys wrestle for money,” says Persin, which would surely have gotten a lot of views. But they’re not actually douchebags, he says, because they were always going to give the loser that $50.

“If you listen to the guy, he said his day is going slow, he’s not making any money, and we’re giving him $50 and $100 right off the bat,” Persin says. “He can’ t be mad at us. People in the comments section make it seem like we’re bad people, saying ‘You should have just given him the money.’ But then there’d be no video.”

Exactly. The only reason for giving these guys money is not to help them, but to exploit them, which is what Persin and his pals don’t get. Why choose homeless people, anyway? Because they’re probably desperate enough to allow themselves to be exploited for a few greenbacks, and because we have a strange fascination with these “other” people, an interest that is hard to satisfy because we spend so much time avoiding them.

Take the arm-wrestling winner’s generous gesture after the match, for example. It’s the whole reason the video went viral. But if you know anything about homeless people, the move wasn’t all that surprising. Even to their own detriment, at times, homeless people are sometimes far more generous than the rest of us. They realize how a little kindness can make a big difference.

Homeless people who end up in encampments, small communities of tent cities or ramshackle structures in various locales around the world, are often generous even with little resources, says Robert Marbut, a homeless advocate in San Antonio, Texas. “They’re almost communal.”

If one person living in the encampment happens to have more food or money, Marbut says, they’ll share it, he says. “If you have a bad week at work, if I have a good week, it’s OK, we work together.”

Another problem with Persin’s video is that it anticipates some wildly entertaining outcome in a completely irresponsible way. Persin chose these men not because they were down on their luck, but because he thought it would be amusing to have homeless people arm-wrestle. Surely, he expected to find colorful characters to participate in the video. And the reason homeless people can be colorful characters is because many of them — as many a third, by most estimates — are suffering from mental illness. So unlike choosing to hire someone for a job because the person possesses a valuable skill, Persin picked these people because they have a weakness he thought might be entertaining to watch.

But the end of the video taught us all a valuable lesson about humanity and human kindness, right? Definitely. And there’s value in deflating the notion that the more desperate a person is, the greedier he must be. But that lesson has unfortunately subsumed the more important one: That no matter how amusing, it’s wrong to exploit the vulnerable for a cheap thrill. It was insulting in the era of the Romans and the Gladiators, just as it was in 2011 when the rapacious owners of a fetish web site paid homeless people in Florida to take a beating. It wasn’t ok in 2012, either, when a marketing agency at the South By Southwest technology conference paid homeless people $20 a day to walk around as mobile WiFi hot spots.

Persin has since come to realize that the best part of his video was that it (accidentally) moved people at the end; he has begun experimenting with turning that twist into a theme. Last week, he uploaded “Helping a Homeless Man Through the Power of Music,” where he recruited a few good singers to sit alongside a panhandler and belt out John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” to boost the homeless guy’s take for a few minutes.

Sure enough, the bills immediately began to trickle into the upturned hat of one of the songsters. Passersby shot videos of the moment, and the vagrant was grateful. No arm-wrestling, no click-baiting headline.

And as of Monday, 202,000 views.

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