When Political Stunts Go Wrong.. And Give You Pneumonia

A New York politician’s self-imposed homelessness challenge went awry this week when he caught pneumonia.

New York City Councilman Ruben Wills.
National Journal
Marina Koren
Dec. 20, 2013, 6:35 a.m.

Every now and then, politi­cians an­nounce they will at­tempt to live like some of their poorest con­stitu­ents for a few days. They emerge un­scathed and usu­ally en­lightened. This week, however, such a polit­ic­al stunt ended up send­ing a New York City politi­cian to the hos­pit­al.

Two days in­to his three-day ex­per­i­ence of liv­ing as a home­less per­son, sleep­ing on sub­ways and vis­it­ing shel­ters, Queens City Coun­cil mem­ber Ruben Wills came down with a case of pneu­mo­nia.

The Demo­crat­ic politi­cian was dia­gnosed at a Brook­lyn hos­pit­al Tues­day night, which he entered without an ID or in­sur­ance card. The next morn­ing, Wills opened doors for cus­tom­ers at a Mc­Don­ald’s and pumped gas, us­ing the money people gave him to pay for a $25.99 bottle of an­ti­bi­ot­ics.

The coun­cil­man re­turned home but vowed to try again when he re­ceives a clean bill of health from his doc­tor. “I needed to ex­per­i­ence home­less­ness to really prop­erly ad­voc­ate for the home­less pop­u­la­tion,” Wills told the New York Daily News at the start of his chal­lenge.

The re­cent trend of liv­ing like the less for­tu­nate began with the so-called SNAP chal­lenge. Last Decem­ber, then-Ne­wark, N.J., May­or Cory Book­er lived on the $4 per day budget of food-stamp re­cip­i­ents en­rolled in the Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion As­sist­ance Pro­gram, shar­ing the ex­per­i­ence on so­cial me­dia. In June, more than two dozen Demo­crat­ic mem­bers of Con­gress did the same to protest a pro­posed $20 bil­lion cut to the fed­er­al pro­gram.

In Ju­ly, Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates for New York may­or spent a night in East Har­lem’s Lin­coln House at the re­quest of the Rev. Al Sharpton, who wanted to high­light the poor con­di­tions in­side the city’s pub­lic-hous­ing com­plexes. As the Demo­crat­ic primary loomed, An­thony Wein­er tried the food-stamp chal­lenge, while Christine Quinn joined a Staten Is­land res­id­ent on her 95-minute com­mute to work. Bill de Bla­sio, the even­tu­al win­ner, lived on min­im­um wage for a week, earn­ing about $92.

These “chal­lenges” usu­ally draw mock­ing cri­ti­cism, from the pub­lic and op­pos­ing parties. But un­like people who are ac­tu­ally im­pov­er­ished, the politi­cians who un­der­take them get to re­turn to their usu­al, some­times lux­uri­ous lives after a couple of weeks of re­l­at­ive dis­com­fort. This time, however, the law­maker prob­ably did not ex­pect to bring the les­son home with him. 

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