Be careful what you ask for…

Online call for help brings offers from saints and sinners

By Kayla Haley
Broward Virtual School

[vimeo 70885420 w=625&h=351]

EDITOR’S NOTE:
HOW WE DID IT
Social media have become a key component of how homeless youth communicate and seek help.

For this story, The Miami Montage staff created “Lydia Ross,” a fictitious 18-year-old girl who was thrown out of her house. Her posts for housing help reached out to strangers across South Florida, providing only the fabricated story and a staged picture. The experiment yielded more than 100 responses.

Daniel Healy, 24, responded to homeless 18-year-old Lydia’s plea for help posted at 11 p.m. on Reddit.com, a social news and entertainment site.

Little did Healey and other responders know, Lydia was a fictitious character created by a Miami Montage reporter to discover what responses a homeless teen might get when turning to social media to find emergency shelter.

Healy responded to Lydia’s posting by providing his phone number and this comment:

“You can stay on my couch. I’ve slept on the streets before for a few days and it’s rough. I’m a guy so it might be better if you find someone else.”

Lydia’s faux request for help is one that more than 100 people responded to within 24 hours on various websites including Craigslist, Reddit, Twitter and Tumblr. The Montage posts were created under the username “Lydianeedshelp.”

The posts drew more than 100 responses from 93 people. The reporter writing as Lydia, 18, said that she had a falling out with her family and only had shelter for a night or two. She said she was looking for a “place to crash.”

Lydia’s posts promised, “I’ll be a good guest – I’ll clean, help out however I can, and cook if you’re up for it. I don’t currently have a job but I’d get right to looking for one as soon as I have a place to sleep.”

A photo attached to the pleas showed a teenaged girl standing against a blank wall holding a scrawled sign with the day’s date, her blonde hair unkempt, and wearing jeans and a pastel sweater. Her face was not shown.

All the serious replies came from Reddit and Craigslist. But, the contrast in the tone of the responses from these two sites was dramatic.

Photo illustration by Claudia Morales WEB OF LIES:  A Miami Montage project found a lot of good Samaritans and some creeps when a reporter posed as a homeless female looking for a place to sleep.

Photo illustration by Claudia Morales
WEB OF LIES: A Miami Montage project found a lot of good Samaritans and some creeps when a reporter posed as a homeless female looking for a place to sleep.

A majority of responses on Reddit appeared to be generous and sincere offers of help. Most of the replies on Craigslist were of a questionable nature, some requiring sex for shelter.

The first response came on Reddit within minutes of the original posting. Though it did not offer a place to stay, it advised to “Watch out for weirdos and don’t do any drugs.”

It wasn’t long before the “weirdos” showed up.

Replies from Craigslist peaked between dusk and dawn – poorly worded e-mails, almost exclusively male users, usually asking for a picture.

Other responses were more conditional.  One reply offered a place to stay, but asked if Lydia would “stay with a nudist.”

In contrast, a majority of Reddit responders sounded genuinely concerned. Users offered support, advice and resources to “avoid the streets like the plague,” one reply said.

“I was in your shoes when I was your age,” a male Craigslist responder said. “Focus on priorities for your big picture.”

He also offered to help Lydia find a job.

Another Reddit user responded to Lydia’s posting with a string of sincere questions.

“Have you found a place to stay?” he asked. “Are you feeling all right? I’d love to hear back from you.”

Even so, the vulgar responses from Craigslist continued. Two more replies requested sexual favors and explicit pictures in exchange for shelter.

Later in the experiment, the reporter revealed her identity to two of the responders who had included their phone numbers.

Healy told the Montage reporter that he does not generally take people in and that this was his first time offering shelter.

“Generally I do minor things,” he said. “I give people car rides and stuff.”

He also noted that he advised Lydia to find another offer of a place to stay from a female.

“People would think that I am taking advantage of the girl and that is a view society holds as a generalization,” he said.

Tony, 27, a Craigslist user who declined to give his last name, also responded to the fabricated posts.

“I saw your ad and believe I can be of some assistance to you,” his response read, “I can provide housing and employment.”

When contacted by phone, Tony was clear that he and his wife wanted to hire a live-in sitter for their two kids. He also added that he had never offered a place to stay in the past.

“We would thoroughly interview her before bringing her in,” Tony said. “You can’t let just anyone watch kids nowadays.”

One Reddit user said that in some ways Lydia’s post helped users rediscover the altruism in Miami.

“I’ll admit the help that has been offered in this thread has in some ways given me hope for this city,”  wrote CiXeL.