I’m a college student living off campus in a lovely old apartment in a relatively upper-class suburb of a major U.S. city. Recently, a homeless man has been sleeping in the unlocked vestibule of my building. We’ve had one or two incidents in the past of people sleeping there, and smoking or urinating in the corners, but nothing of the sort has happened with this person.
There have been issues, though. Once, I ordered delivery, and my food went missing; I assumed he took it. But I have consistent access to food and he doesn’t, so while it was annoying, it did not make me angry. No packages of mine have been stolen, but I’m not the only person who lives in the building. There are nights when I come home late and I have to walk over him, hoping not to wake him.
From seeing him around town, I think the man is mentally ill, but to my knowledge, he hasn’t directly harmed any person in the building. I don’t want to call the police on someone who may already be in or is likely to be shuffled into the carceral system — he and I are both Black, and the town and university are predominantly white. It feels disgusting to me to kick someone out of this modest form of shelter while I have housing. What should I do? — Name Withheld, Evanston, Ill.
From the Ethicist:
The situation you’re dealing with is far larger than that vestibule. Municipalities across the country haven’t created enough affordable housing; our social-assistance systems, at every level, haven’t been given the resources to look after people whose mental illness hinders them from looking after themselves. We don’t have enough shelters for those who need them, and the conditions in those we have are often such that people on the streets don’t look forward to spending time in them.
But what can you do? A few things. You can get in touch with a community-outreach organization and see if it can connect this man with services and help him make alternate arrangements. You can confer with other tenants in your building to find out what insights or concerns they may have. And you can talk to your landlord or building manager about putting a lock on the vestibule, and maybe arranging a parcel locker for deliveries. The truth is, though, that anything that counts as a solution for you is likely to be a problem for him, at least in the short term.
I’m glad that you’re treating him as a human being in need. But your safety matters, too. Helping to ameliorate his situation isn’t a responsibility that should fall on you alone. It falls on us, collectively, and we’ve let you down.
A Bonus Question
I am an atheist and somewhat at odds with organized religion. I recently attended a funeral Mass for a cousin. I was conflicted about how I should participate in the service. I want to show my respect for the deceased and don’t object to the service but prefer not to participate in the prayers, hymns, genuflecting et cetera. In the future, can I just attend services like this one without participating? — John France, Wilmington, Del.
From the Ethicist:
Most people at a funeral Mass are thinking only about the person whose death is being mourned and whose life is being celebrated. In our multireligious society, many of us are used to being at confirmations, bar and bat mitzvahs, quinceañeras, weddings, funerals and the like, with people of all faiths and none. Because a service is a kind of collective performance, attendees can often participate in its stylized forms of behavior (e.g., genuflecting and hymn-singing) without representing themselves as believers. Going along with the forms can be a way of showing respect — it’s their church and their service — that’s consistent with having private reservations about matters of theology or doctrine.
The previous question was from a reader who wanted advice on how to process the discovery of his son’s side gig. He wrote: “My son, who is in his early 20s, is a college student. He lives on his own, on a modest but ample budget. I have just found out that my son is a ‘model’ on a pornographic streaming service. My initial reaction was shock, revulsion and shame. But the longer I think about it, the more I wonder, is there really anything immoral or otherwise wrong about what he is doing? He does it from the privacy of his home, alone, and seems to earn a substantial amount of money. If he likes what he does, is there any reason on my part to feel alarmed, ashamed, guilty or worried?”
In his response, the Ethicist noted: “If your son were being paid for playing the piano, giving dance instruction or reciting poetry via livestreaming — other ways of using his body — nobody would raise an eyebrow, or purse a lip. Sex is seen as special. … So how are we to think about “camming,” something that’s neither in-person prostitution nor traditional pornography but has features of both? So far as I can see, your son is neither being exploited nor exploiting others. Some argue that sexual intercourse for hire is wrong, but it would take a separate argument to show that sexual display of this kind was wrong. … But you can also have prudential concerns. How would his prospects be affected if word got out about his webcam gig? Livestreams can be recorded and uploaded. Even if you think that erotic livestreaming is neither wrong nor shameful, it’s natural, as a parent, to worry about how others might react.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)
I have to disagree with the Ethicist on this one. In theory, I have nothing against sex work, but the letter writer may be justifiably concerned if his son believes that sex work is his only option to make money. It’s fine if he truly enjoys this work, but there is something to be said about the reasons people enter the cam industry in the first place. I have a hard time believing that this is the son’s first choice as a job. — Avery
I applaud the letter writer’s thoughtfulness. In my early 20s, I did pornographic modeling online. The work made me feel beautiful and confident; I didn’t feel used. I grew up in a very small town and people discovered my work. My parents found out through someone at our local church and their response was characterized by shame, hate and revulsion. My employer learned what was going on and I was fired. Even though I was in my early 20s and an adult, I was made to go to a Christian counselor by my parents and my church. I eventually moved across the country and made a better life for myself. The Ethicist’s response to this topic contains the kind of consideration I wish my family, friends and co-workers had displayed. I thank him for bringing normalcy to this subject matter. — Piper
At one point, my daughter was in the top 7% of OnlyFans performers. She gained pride and money from the work, and once word spread and her friends got the razzing out of their systems, it simply became a nice (and safe!) source of income. — Pamela
I have a friend who lives in another state and likes to use cam services. One day he called me to inform me that my college age son is a cam model. The site seems to be very “high end” and takes extra precautions to prevent users from downloading the model’s performances. Thankfully, the site even allows the models to block those states in which the model’s family lives. My son has always been entrepreneurial, and in spite of my generous contributions to his education, I completely trust him. As a father, I never expected to know everything about my son’s life. He has good values, treats others with kindness and is frugal. We enjoy each other’s company, and text daily. I know today’s norms are different because of technology. That’s our Brave New World, folks. — Russell
When my daughter was a college student, her sorority sisters texted with older men, as sugar babies. My daughter expressed interest in pursuing the same side hustle. I didn’t judge what her friends were doing, because all parties were consenting adults. But I told her gently that the activity wasn’t supporting, in my personal view, a fully healthy expression of human sexuality. That it was feeding a form of sexual fantasy that could, potentially, lead to negative emotional consequences for either party involved, or both of them. I asked her what she needed the money for. She had a generous allowance. Was the emotional risk worth it for, say, designer handbags or other material goods? Asking her open questions and offering my own perspective allowed my daughter to make her own decision about what to do. — Carmen