Chinese billionaire Chen Guangbiao garnered tons of publicity for his bizarre stunt luncheon at which he failed to give a promised $300 each to hundreds of homeless New Yorkers. But the real villain was not Chen—it was a charity that serves the homeless.
We'll be the first to admit that Chen Guangbiao is, by all evidence, an egomaniac lunatic. But let's set that aside for a moment and focus on the event in question. Chen took out full page ads promising $300 each to up to 1,000 homeless people who attended his weird luncheon event in Central Park. He managed to find some homeless people to attend. He did not end up giving them the cash as promised. He has been roundly vilified for his wasteful stunt.
Yes, the stunt was wasteful. But what about the cash? Why didn't these homeless people at least walk out with $300 in their pockets, which would have gone a long way towards redeeming this whole spectacle? From the New York Times:
On Sunday [Chen] met with officials from the New York City Rescue Mission and asked them to supply the homeless people as guests. They said they would participate in the event as long as he did not hand out any cash, said Craig Mayes, the group's executive director. Mr. Mayes said he was concerned that some of the clients might use the cash to buy alcohol and drugs. In return, Mr. Chen agreed to donate $90,000 to the organization, and the two parties signed a contract.
The Times says that Mayes (pictured above, at left) once again shut down Chen when he asked to visit the Mission and distribute cash in person.
Now: might some homeless people may have spent that money on alcohol and drugs? Yes. Does that mean that the head of the New York City Rescue Mission was justified in denying these homeless people a promised $300 each? Absolutely not. Lots of non-homeless people spend their paychecks on alcohol and drugs too, but that doesn't mean their landlord can come to their job and tell their boss to stop paying them.
Homeless people are people with serious problems. But they are people. They are not slaves. If every homeless person in attendance at Chen's luncheon had been escorted there from a locked-down drug and alcohol rehab program, perhaps there would be some justification for the director of that program denying them cash in their pockets. But that was not the case. The New York City Rescue Mission is an admirable organization that has, for more than 140 years, helped to provide food, clothing and shelter to our city's most desperate people. Good for them. That does not mean that they get to govern every last aspect of the lives of the people they serve. Their mission is to help homeless people, not to own them.
To the extent that the NYT's version of events is accurate (Mayes wrote on Facebook that "They didn't get the story quite right," but didn't elaborate), it shows this: Craig Mayes took a great deal of money that was destined for the pockets of homeless people and diverted it into the bank account of his own organization. This was an institutional hijacking. That his organization serves the homeless makes his actions understandable, but it does not justify them. Homeless people are free people with agency, like all of us. They have the right to make good or bad purchasing decisions, like all of us. And they can use $300 more than any of us. The assumption that a charity organization knows better what a homeless person needs that the person himself, and that *all* of that cash would have been spent on drugs—not, say, food, or clothes—is insulting, and almost certainly wrong.
Besides, Chen's newspaper ad promised to give $300 each to 1,000 homeless people. That's $300,000. The NYC Rescue Mission canceled that in exchange for a $90,000 donation. If that's true, Craig Mayes didn't just overstep his rights; he got ripped off in the process.