At the Huffington Post today, I write about a Washington, DC-area homeless man who is using social media to highlight the plights of his underserved community. Admirable and indeed pioneering, but nonetheless agitating for someone who grew up dirt poor in South Georgia: He rebuffs formal 9-to-5 jobs lest it detract from his capacity to marshal his burgeoning social media empire.
Eric Sheptock is fast-becoming America’s next social justice celebrity. An unemployed, recovering crack cocaine addict with an aggressive social media presence, he is likely the only homeless man in America to receive email alerts on press mentions of his name, for which this will no doubt register.
Sheptock, whose presence on Twitter and Facebook has attracted upwards of 5,500 supporters, refuses to accept any job that might interfere with his online advocacy. He has fans, after all, and they like him, they really like him.
The subject of a recent Washington Post profile, Sheptock fancies himself a portal into an otherwise silent, underserved community. Recently, he delivered an urgent call to action to his online supporters: “Demand the city of Gainesville, Florida, to feed all who are hungry.”
“Socialism isn’t a bad word,” another Sheptock vignette reads. But for those with responsibilities beyond updating their various social networks, demanding they be fed to their fill is not an option.
The home at which I came of age, in Sylvester, Georgia, was a twenty-five-year-old mobile home found on a dirt road and nestled on leased land between a peanut field and pecan orchard. In that rural Georgia town, where the peanut-to-person ratio was somewhere near 1,000,000 to 1, you worked or you went homeless and hungry.
It was a simple but powerful truth: No one wants to sleep in a peanut field. There was no government aide infrastructure for the rural, overworked and underpaid mother and you can be certain there were no cosmopolitan blue bloods whose sleep that night would be interrupted lest they open their wallet for the disheveled haggards on the street.
The compounding social barriers to economic security for America’s poor and homeless has never been greater and the chance to rise above our forebears grows diminished with each successive generation born of poverty and injustice. But the great tragedy of our American experience is not an individual’s decision to waste their capacity for success—lost, in some cases, on griping substance abuse, listlessness and even Facebook—but our refusal to demand better of them.
Eric Sheptock has proved he has what it takes; he merely refuses to apply it. That failure is as much his as our own.