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.