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Airbnb Campaign Brings Attention to NYC Homeless

Alexis Petru headshotWords by Alexis Petru
New Activism
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If you’re looking for a place to stay on your next trip to New York City, Airbnb user Jamie has a posting that sounds promising: a “Hot Bedroom w/ Semi-Private Terrace” for only $11. But on closer inspection of the post and accompanying photo, it appears Jamie’s “hot bedroom” is actually the sidewalk under the awning of a Manhattan office building, and Jamie is holding a cardboard sign that reads, “Homeless. Need Money.”

Is this a cruel joke? No, the listing says; these living conditions are the sad reality for New York City’s 60,000 homeless. The fake Airbnb posting is part of an innovative campaign to raise awareness about the Big Apple’s growing homeless population on the popular house-sharing platform.

Homeless Airbnb was dreamed up by New York City-based artist-activists Jamie Shin and Vito Catalani, the creative team behind “TipBombing,” which gathered large audiences to shower unsuspecting New York street musicians with tips. The pair wanted to shed light on the places the city’s homeless live and sleep, Shin and Catalani said in a press release, using the travel site that lets members rent out their homes to strangers.

“In the spirit of Airbnb, we reminded people that anywhere can be home,” a narrator said in a YouTube video about the campaign.

Other socially-minded mock Airbnb postings include “Amazing NYC 1BR w/bike service” (a homeless man’s bike and bike trailer) and “Modern Boho Open Space” (a man pushing a shopping cart down a sidewalk). And if an individual chooses to book one of these listings, the money – usually around $10 to $14 – goes to a New York City homeless shelter, Shin and Catalani said.

On any given night in the United States, there are 578,424 people without homes, according to a homeless population count conducted by cities in January 2014 and reported to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. About 15 percent of the homeless population – 84,291 people – are considered “chronically homeless.” Over 200,000 homeless people are in families, including children.

A lack of affordable housing is one of the main reasons people become homeless, and, coincidentally enough, one criticism of Airbnb has been that it exacerbates apartment scarcity in cities like New York and San Francisco. Detractors of the house-sharing site say that Airbnb incentivizes landlords to essentially turn their apartments into private hotels -- booking the space to one Airbnb guest after another, rather than renting it out long-term to a community member.

But a 2013 economic impact study, conducted by Airbnb and HR&A, revealed that 46 percent of the Airbnb hosts in San Francisco were renting out their entire home while they were out of town, and 44 percent were renting out a portion of their home (like a spare room) while they continued to live there. Only 10 percent of Airbnb hosts were property owners who don’t occupy the apartment at all and run it as a full-time Airbnb property. So, while the travel platform may have a small impact on the availability of housing, it’s likely not a significant contributor to the homeless problem in major U.S. cities.

Yet Shin and Catalani’s decision to use Airbnb as the avenue for their social-awareness campaign is still an interesting one. The people browsing through Airbnb listings in Manhattan are typically tourists – people with homes themselves and with the money and resources to vacation in one of the most expensive cities in the world. They’re visiting New York City to see the lights and bustle of Times Square, perhaps a show on Broadway, and maybe the Statue of Liberty or Empire State Building. They’re not coming to the Big Apple to think about where and how the city’s homeless population lives. But then a Homeless Airbnb listing pops up, and they’re forced to confront another side of New York and America.

Shin and Catalani are posting Homeless Airbnb sporadically, they said in a statement. If you can’t find one on Airbnb, the team encourages you to support their cause by donating directly to one of New York City’s homeless shelters, including New York Rescue Mission, Goddard Riverside, Common Ground and Jericho Project.

Image credit: Homeless Airbnb

Alexis Petru headshotAlexis Petru

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.

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