Homelessness and Performative Activism

People have become increasingly drawn to solving significant issues in our constantly evolving world. One way to participate is by having a platform on which information can be quickly disseminated, and connections can be utilized. Most celebrities have this platform and become activists for causes that they are passionate about. However, some celebrities only go so far as to support their chosen causes. In regards to homelessness, the repercussions of their lack of action are not only visible but detrimental. 

Brad Pitt has had his share of controversies throughout his acting career, but his short-lived attention to homelessness was only recently uncovered.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, taking thousands’ lives and destroying millions’ homes. While some people could return to their homes unscathed within a few days, another 600,000 people became displaced within the next month. 

Two years later, Pitt visited the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, shocked at the little progress  in rebuilding homes for the predominantly African American working-class community. From there, he put together 21 of the world’s greatest architects, homeowners, and community organizers to create the Make It Right Initiative, intending to build ideal homes for those displaced after Hurricane Katrina.

In addition to this collaborative effort, Pitt pledged $5 million in matching donations on top of requesting contributions from international diplomats at the Clinton Global Initiative. As a result of this interaction, former president Bill Clinton joined Pitt on his project. He had a very public display of camaraderie, breaking ground with him using his very own shovel.

Flash forward to 2018, 109 out of the 150 planned houses had already been built, but not without their deficiencies. Throughout the years, families complained about structural issues, including the floor crumbling beneath their feet and rot, mold, and electrical problems.

Alfreda Claiborne, one of the residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina who had moved into Pitt’s supposedly ideal housing, said, “it’s all coming apart,” as the rot and mold developing were dangerous for Claiborne’s granddaughter and her husband who had a stroke a few years back.

Claiborne, among numerous other residents, has attempted to contact those at Make It Right Initiative to make them aware of the issues to no avail and has given up hope of having them resolved. 

“Yes, I wanted to come back,” Claiborne said. “But if I knew how we would be treated and taken advantage of, I wouldn’t have come.”

The situation got even murkier when revealing that the Make It Right Initiative was eventually made aware of the structural issues of the houses built under Pitt’s name but had residents sign non-disclosure agreements before repairs were made. Even then, the results of inspections of the households were kept from residents, leaving them in the dark again. 

Finally, residents decided to make their situations public. They filed a lawsuit against the Make It Right Initiative, which then filed a lawsuit against one of the architects involved in  building  the homes. Pitt commented,  “we went into it incredibly naive… so it’s been a big learning curve.”

The foundation’s failure to provide victims of Hurricane Katrina with long-term secure affordable housing is only one example demonstrating how merely giving those experiencing homelessness houses is not enough. People experiencing homelessness are often not financially stable enough to fix maintenance issues themselves, especially if they spent the last of their savings on the downpayment of their new houses like Claiborne.

And while Pitt, as well as the foundation, was very willing to help individuals without homes after Hurricane Katrina by building them houses to thrive in, such a project needed to be continuously overseen and maintained to prevent such structural and electrical issues from occurring. 

What may have started as a genuine attempt at real activism towards homelessness quickly became a show of performative activism once problems began to surface. The needs of the residents involved in the housing project were being ignored, coupled with the residents being forced to sign non-disclosure agreements and Pitt’s close-to deafening silence when it came to addressing the situation.

Although celebrities like Pitt suffer from the pressures of fame and media attention, they should be more considerate in regarding the causes they claim they support. Performative activism hurts real people and, in regards to homelessness, can potentially set those within the homeless community back in terms of securing long-term affordable housing.


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