The Homeless Can't Eat Publicity, But It Fills a Void

Gerald Weeks has a master's degree and a firm handshake, and he was looking for something to eat.

Weeks has been homeless for the past five years and when he heard that an eccentric Chinese billionaire, the recycling and construction magnate Chen Guangbiao, would be giving homeless New Yorkers access to a four-course meal at a luxury restaurant in the middle of Central Park, as well as an envelope filled with $300 cash, Weeks figured he'd try his luck.

Along with dozens of other homeless New Yorkers who had come for the free lunch, Weeks was barred access because he hadn't RSVPed and didn't have a ticket.

We were standing behind the length of a series of protective barriers across from the restaurant. A shirtless white man in Under Armour shorts biked past on a Citi Bike with a GoPro camera strapped to his sweaty forehead. Weeks insisted to me as we watched the bikers, who look perplexed by the crowd, that his being prohibited entry from the event didn't make him angry.

"I thought this might be an opportunity to seize a little change, pay what you can pay, and stay afloat for a little while." He paused. "But how far can you go with $300?"

I asked him what he'd have done with the money if he had gotten in.

"You're gonna buy some food and then what are you gonna do? You'll sit down and buy a cigarette. You can't pay no rent for $300 in New York City."

Weeks was wearing a cotton bucket hat and his shirt, on the muggy June day, was unzipped down to his chest. There were roughly 50 homeless people, and about the same number of protestors, huddled near the entrance of the Loeb Central Park Boathouse, behind barriers and looking on at a crowd of stern police officers and security guards with walkie-talkies. Weeks was relatively positive about his being on the wrong side of the gourmet feast. He had passed up a line at his local shelter to try for a better meal—one that included beef filet with horseradish-roasted potatoes—here.

"It's good for those who got served," he told me. "And for those who didn't, you know, we still got to make a desperate attempt. You got to have patience."

Few of the others were as Zen as Weeks. Many, rightfully, felt slighted or lied to.

"I don't even got a phone! I don't got an email!" Monique Lucas, a middle-aged woman who said she has been diagnosed HIV positive, had come down to 77th street from 142nd and Broadway. The rumor was that in order to be granted access to the event, people had needed to RSVP to a Hotmail email address Guangbiao had listed on the advertisements he ran in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Few homeless people have access to computers, and the hefty price of a full-page advertisement in the two papers—estimated to be over $175,000—is money that could have easily gone back to the homeless community.

One toothless man exclaimed: "Some of us can't even read!"

"You get here early, you skip your breakfast. I come here and look what happened," he said, adding that he'd come here with his wife, who cradled her stomach painfully. "We are hungry," she said.

A young man named Carlos, who said he had been incarcerated for ten years on a charge he wouldn't reveal to me, was sure he had the answer to the limited access to the event. Only 250 people were allowed in, and it seems that the RSVP process was largely a lie. The contingent came from the New York City Rescue Mission in a prearranged deal.

"Tell that nigga to give me a million dollars and I'll leave him alone," Carlos suggested. He had angrily recounted in the morning how the state wouldn't help him get a place when he'd been released from jail. "I got my own house, too. They won't even let me go to my own house."

Lucas, the HIV positive woman I had been speaking to, skipped her daily treatment so she could get down to the meal early. The married couple added: "We spent our last $2.50 on subway fare. Now we gotta hop the train to try to get back on."

The Homeless Can't Eat Publicity, But It Fills a Void

There are nearly 60,000 homeless people in New York, the highest number in the city's history. The lunch stunt—which felt both tasteless and misguided in a way that only a person with more money than sense could possibly plan—was dreamed up by Guangbiao as a way to improve Chinese-American relations. In an interview with CBS This Morning, the mogul spontaneously broke out into a rendition of "We Are the World," a song he also sang at the luncheon.

Reports also noted that Guangbiao required diners to sing a Communist theme before being permitted to eat, then weren't even given the money they were promised. In a report by the New York Times, the New York City Rescue Mission executive director, Craig Mayes, said the group had asked the cash to be left out of the deal, fearful that their clients might spend it on drugs or alcohol. Instead, Guangbiao agreed to a $90,000 donation to the mission.

A few months ago, in another bid for Sino-American comity, Guangbiao attempted to buy the New York Times. New York magazine profiled the billionaire in January:

"If I succeed, I will conduct some necessary reforms," Chen wrote in his Global Times editorial. "The ultimate goal of which is to make the paper's reports more authentic and objective, thus rebuilding its credibility and influence."

"Chinese and U.S. medias are the head of the locomotive of the world," he says. "If both join hands together, they could exert better social benefit."

Guangbiao has been the ringleader of a number of similar events in his homeland—distributing canned air to draw attention to China's air pollution problem, smashing his own Mercedes with a crane to encourage people to take up cycling, even manning a staff of workers to aid during an earthquake in the Sichuan province. But there appears to be something here that is lost in translation. As many expressed to me yesterday, the $300 in cash wasn't exactly going to turn their fortune around, even when they believed it could be a reality for them.

David Molina, a 65-year-old immigrant from Cuba with platinum hair and a gothic tattoo of his surname running down his neck, said he was eager to move to Alaska.

When I asked what he thought of all this mayhem, he came out in support of Guangbiao. "How many people in New York don't do nothing?" And yet, here he was, a "two-hour train ride" from his shelter in Brownsville, and now with nothing to eat. "I think about that fishing boat in Alaska, man," he said, almost theatrically.

Meanwhile there were the protesters, whose complaints about Guangbiao were more political. Many of them were born in China and came to see the stunt in order to rail against the businessman's "dirty money," which they claimed comes from his involvement in the Chinese Communist Party. Zhixin An, a young man who spoke little English and identified himself as a representative of a group called the League of Roar, said that if Guangbiao really wanted to help, he wouldn't be in New York—he'd be in China, "where people need it."

Swaths of Chinese protesters chanted their disdain for Guangbiao and his politics, passing out testimonials in English that recounted stories of oppression by the Chinese Communist Party:

"They used their authority to threaten, force, and oppress people. Those corrupt greedy officials utilize the quota of our local people to forcibly occupy the central area where we used to live to build the skyscrapers. They subsequently sold the rest of houses at extremely high prices and engulf the profits themselves!"

When the protesters grew heated, yelling their tense pitches at anyone who would listen, members of the NYPD glanced wearily at each other.

The Homeless Can't Eat Publicity, But It Fills a Void

Not everyone saw Guangbiao as a self-promotional thorn. When I spoke to Michael Stoops, Community Organizer at the National Coalition for the Homeless, after the event, he was critical of those who want to take down Guangbiao's generosity.

"Critics are usually part of the housed population," he told me over the phone from D.C. "If acts such as these are a way to encourage people to do something, those things make all the difference."

Stoops recognizes the importance of bringing attention to the homeless community in any regard, even if that means one hot, free meal—"even if it's just at McDonalds."

"I used to bemoan the fact that people only thought about the homeless on Easter, Christmas Day, when it's cold. But I rethought it," he said. "It's not the solution, but it's better than doing nothing."

The Homeless Can't Eat Publicity, But It Fills a Void

When I left Central Park a few hours later, I emerged onto Lexington Avenue to the sight of a blond man in flip-flops devouring a stuffed burrito with vigor, all while he walked and talked on his smart phone. I passed him by to descend into the subway station at 77th street.

I boarded the 6 train downtown and a man with a cane and a hunch got on at the same time as me, shuffling down the length of the narrow train, which was mostly packed with young tourists, women in shades of chambray, and a few men in suits reading on their iPads. He began to ask people for change, apologizing as he walked.

On his third passage through the hall of people, he pleaded, "Can anyone find it in their heart to help someone in need?" Nobody even looked in his direction.

[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]