I’m not quite sure how to feel about a recent post at change.org announcing Oprah’s plan to make over a family homeless shelter. America’s talk show queen is pairing up with Benjamin Moore and has asked contestants to fill out an online form indicating in 100-200 words why their shelter is the most deserving of a makeover. The contest is now closed (sorry, folks), but I imagine a future episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show will be dedicated to unveiling the transformation.
My immediate response to this news included a requisite rolling of the eyes–which is often the case when I hear about yet another one of Oprah’s magical makeovers, favourite things giveaways, and other stunts that encourage endless consumption. And I always get miffed when I see corporate sponsorship disguised as benevolence. Oh, thank you, Benjamin Moore for donating what is probably a very negligible amount of paint and supplies in return for HUGE publicity.
Making over a homeless shelter seems like such a flawed idea. Is this really the best way to help homeless families that have been hit hard by the recession? It comes off as a frivolous gesture that doesn’t in any way tackle the real issues that homeless people face. Wouldn’t it be better to donate money towards the provision of basic needs like food and clothing, or perhaps building more shelters so that everyone without a home has a place to go?
But then I started thinking a bit more. I spend a lot of time enjoying the pleasures that are associated with being surrounded by beauty and beautiful things. And I’ve chosen to decorate my apartment in ways that make my space feel like a home to me. So is it fair to say that an aesthetically pleasing environment is a luxury that shouldn’t be afforded to the homeless? While Oprah’s homeless shelter makeover will in no way contribute to the elimination or reduction of homelessness or poverty, it will provide a certain amount of dignity to its recipients. And I think that feeling of dignity and overall comfort in having a reasonably updated home can go a long way to lifting people out of difficult situations.
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, we all know that Oprah is a near-omnipotent media magnate who’s got the power to enlighten and persuade. Millions of people watch her show every day, and the topics she covers often inspire her viewers to take action and create change within their own lives and communities. If Oprah does a show that educates Americans and the world about the impact of the recession on the homeless population, I have no doubt that her viewers will respond and start making the types of contributions that do actually effect change. So Oprah redecorates a shelter, but then her viewers take on simpler yet equally meaningful tasks such as donating clothing, food and time to a local shelter.
So, as I continue to mull over the pros and cons of Oprah’s homeless shelter transformation, I’ll leave you with these questions: within the context of homelessness, is it sometimes necessary to balance pragmatic concerns with aesthetic, pleasure-driven ones? Is Oprah doing a good thing?