Yesterday morning, I told you about Sub-Urban Experience, a website promising to give anyone willing to pay $2000 "a crash experience of the homeless life style" that could inspire "a new respect for the folks that find themselves in this predicament."
Yesterday afternoon, I met with Mike Momany, the man behind the site. Momany is an affable enough fellow in his 60s. He was wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt, and his long gray goatee and self-described "Hitler mustache" indicated that he didn't mind being noticed. We arranged to meet at Seattle Coffee Works by the Pike Place Market, a venue which Momany chose because he spends his days around the downtown core and because SCW isn't "corporate." Momany seemed surprised—but not entirely displeased—about all the attention the site had gotten in the last day or so. "I wasn't really expecting it," he said. Just before the media firestorm began, Momany said he was planning to start advertising his site by sending an e-mail to 50 Washington State megachurches, inviting them to send a member on the tour to experience what homelessness is like.
Though he claims to come from a "pretty well-off family," Momany is currently homeless, and he's spent a lot of his life without a home. He says he's floated the idea of Sub-Urban Experience with a lot of people, and the homeless people he's talked to say it's a great idea. The only people who are against it, he says, are "social services." For the doubters, he assures them that "this is not going to be the zoo." He hasn't taken anybody on the tour yet, but he says he envisions the experience as a way to present "a new way to look at homelessness," to people who "are really serious about wanting to do something about homelessness." "Part of my goal," Momany says, "is to bring the conversation about homelessness out into the open." That may be true, but it's important to note that Momany is a businessman; he says Sub-Urban Experience is definitely a "profit-making" venture. "I want to get out of homelessness," he says. Momany knew Bill Speidel, the founder of the Underground Tour, and he seems to consider him to be a role model. (Momany has previously made the news for wanting to capitalize on Washington State pot tourism.)
What about charges that the Sub-Urban Experience will waste resources? Momany says that's not the case. Rather than checking the tourists into shelters, he says they'd stay in "the cheapest hostels" in the International District area, which charge $15 a night. (Momany is staying in one of those hostels right now. He says they're full of working homeless people who get up at 6 am every day to work minimum wage jobs.) All the food would be paid for, not from a soup kitchen. He says he's talked to the businesses he'd include on the tour, and that "they'll know why we're there and they'll be playing along." The idea would be to experience homelessness without intruding or disrespecting homeless people. "The tent cities, for instance," Momany says, "we're not gonna do that" on the tour.
But of course, this is all hypothetical right now, a flash of online outrage about a website for a tour that hasn't actually happened yet. Momany says the only real inquiries he's gotten into the tour so far are from local journalists. He says he might be willing to give them a discounted rate.