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How the Soft White Underbelly is Creating Empathy for Those Suffering Homelessness

In the past, homelessness was looked at as a personal failing, something that only happens to the weak; or it was seen as something that only happens to lazy people. However, in recent years, with the rise of social media and the effort to humanize those dealing with homelessness, many have begun to see the nuances and layers that encompass the struggle of homelessness.  

In part, thanks to the visibility offered by social media, many people have been able to shine a new light on the struggle of homelessness. 

One such individual is Mark Laita, a photographer from Los Angeles. Laita started his YouTube channel, Soft White Underbelly, two years ago and is a career photographer who made his name in advertising. However, he realized that he wanted to change his legacy. So, Laita filmed a video explaining his channel’s purpose and that “these videos are meant to create awareness for things that are broken in our country.” 

Laita finds those he usually interviews around Los Angeles’ Skid Row, a well-known homeless encampment. He often asks the selected individuals to tell their life stories: “How was your childhood? Where are your parents today? Do you have anyone to help you? What is it like day to day? What is your biggest fear? Where do you see yourself in the future?” All to better understand the nuances of homelessness.

Today we have become adept at turning a blind eye, especially when it comes to things that are hard to look at or deal with, such as homelessness. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development, California has seen a 7% increase in those suffering from homelessness in 2020-2021. Major California cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles are at the forefront of the fight against homelessness. 

Channels such as Laita’s Soft White Underbelly allow people to confront uncomfortable subjects such as homelessness from a safe distance in digestible pixels. Giving those suffering from homelessness space to tell their stories and explain how and why they suffer from homelessness allows compassion to grow.   

Often people walk by individuals suffering from homelessness and think, “just get a job,” “get off the drugs,” “stop being lazy,” or “they threw their life away.” There is a disconnect and a lack of compassion because the individual’s humanity and identity are gone, and they become another “homeless.” Through channels such as Laita’s, understanding is fostered that those suffering from homelessness often have been given up on, forgotten, ignored, and never given a chance. 

There are many misconceptions and preconceived notions about homelessness that plague society. Ultimately making it harder to solve the problem that society has created. Society has deemed homelessness an individual issue when it is our issue as a society. 

Laita named his channel after the idea that those left behind, forgotten, and ignored become our soft white underbelly, the place of vulnerability. If, as a society, we choose to do nothing, eventually, the problems will worsen with no return. Laita’s channel points out the issue of homelessness. He creates a space where the stories of those who suffer homelessness can share their experience and how they found themselves where they are today. These stories point out the pitfalls in our society and our government’s systems. It highlights the cracks in the foundation that many people fall through. 

Today it has become part of society to look away when you see someone on the street asking for money because it is uncomfortable or easy to do. However, Laita’s channels bred compassion and empathy. It gives humanity to those who struggle with homelessness rather than just the label of homelessness. 

Critiques 

An issue arises when channels become for profit and the individuals interviewed become a paycheck rather than the reasoning behind the interviews. The profits Laita makes from his channel either go back into the channel or into helping those Laita.     

When everyone is looking to stand out and make a name for themselves, it becomes easy to walk all over people in the process, for example, in the early 2000s with the creation of BumFights. Many people believed this was their claim to fame and began to pay people struggling with homelessness to fight each other for sick entertainment. 

There is a thin line between being a helpful force highlighting the multiple layers of homelessness and being exploitative. 
Conclusion

Mark Laita has opened a door that was previously firmly shut. By opening this door, he has allowed people to learn about homelessness and foster a sense of empathy. It is easy to walk past someone struggling with homelessness, especially when you grow up watching people around you ignore them.

Laita has given a space for those who are often silenced or without a platform to share their stories. This space has allowed people to grow a sense of empathy and understanding towards those suffering from homelessness rather than just looking away.

While Laita is a prime example of a channel dedicated to the fight for humanity, that does not mean there are not people out there going to exploit and use those less fortunate.

Sources:

https://www.youtube.com/c/SoftWhiteUnderbelly 

https://www.ppic.org/blog/views-on-homelessness-have-shifted-in-some-california-regions/#:~:text=According%20to%20a%20report%20by,7%25%20from%202020%20to%202021.

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