Last week, UT alumnus Benjamin McPhaul raised roughly $30,000 to get Ishmael Mohammed Jr. — known to many on campus as “The Wendy’s Guy” for the 13 years he spent working at the Union Wendy’s — off the streets and into permanent housing and employment. Junior left UT in 2012, but, before he did, he gained renown on campus for his cheery demeanor and ability to take orders at record-breaking speeds. When the news broke that Mohammed had been found homeless and that McPhaul was attempting to help him, the local media — including this newspaper — jumped at what seemed like a cut-and-dried, heartwarming story.
But while McPhaul deserves admiration for the help he provided — raising $30,000 to substantially change the course of one person’s life is significant and praise-worthy — his actions also represent a narrow scope of thinking about the problem of homelessness. Both this mindset and the way McPhaul’s actions perpetuate it don’t help with larger issues of inequity.
Homelessness in Austin and anywhere else isn’t a problem that can be ameliorated in a piecemeal fashion. More importantly, it’s not a problem that can be fixed without clearly looking into its causes. Oscar Wilde addressed this in 1891, when he related slavery to charity by saying, “The worst slave owners were those that were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the core of the system being realised by those who suffered from it.” Having one shining example of an individual like Mohammed blinds us from the rest of the homeless population that is still in dire need.
While McPhaul’s charity is indeed a beautiful act of humanity, very little will have changed in Austin by the time Mohammed has received the benefit of the $30,000. We need to address the structural issues of homelessness and poverty instead of focusing on its most visible members. Not every homeless person is “The Wendy’s Guy.” There are many well-adjusted homeless people in Austin who need help but whose backstories and personal connections will not inspire anyone to raise money for them. And, according to McPhaul, the $30,000 that was raised for Mohammed has actually caused some of the homeless community to resent him; the resentment is a reminder of the fact that the $30,000 Junior will receive will do little good for other homeless individuals.
We must address the structural problems of homelessness at both the organizational level and at the policy level. Austin has several organizations that offer assistance to the homeless, such as the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition and Foundation for the Homeless, and these are groups that could all use more resources to combat homelessness in the city.
In a piece for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell posited that the cost of housing a homeless person and providing them with a caseworker would be cheaper than the annual cost that homeless individuals incur on the system (supported by taxpayers) through the various medical costs that stem from life on the streets. Money spent to provide homeless persons with caseworkers also goes further toward helping mitigate homelessness itself, rather than aiding just the victims of the problem.
Yes, McPhaul’s fundraising efforts are aimed in the right direction. McPhaul has said he wants to help Junior in a similar fashion to the way Gladwell would like to address homelessness, and McPhaul has expressed multiple times that the money raised will go to helping Junior over the long term. The next step is to apply that mentality over the long term to assist Austin’s other homeless individuals.
Breland is a Plan II senior from Houston. Follow Breland on Twitter @alibreland.