Calling their activity “creature hunting,” a growing number of Calgarians have been posting humiliating images of street people online, raising concern among homeless advocates and the police.
A Facebook group named ‘Creature Sightings’ was 200-members strong as of Monday, and featured dozens of images of people apparently drunk, passed out, urinating, or otherwise behaving in odd and embarrassing ways in public.
In some videos, the people behind the camera accost their subjects and openly mock their disability or race.
“I think it’s just shameful that you see it in Calgary,” said Tim Richter, president of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, after reviewing the website. “I expect better of people here.”
Members of the page, however, say their only goals are to have some fun highlighting the kind of embarrassing public behaviour they, themselves, have engaged in, in the past.
“I have been a creature before,” said ‘Pistol Young Cash,’ a founder of the page, in an interview via Facebook chat.
‘Cash’ – who goes by that handle on Facebook and claims it’s his legal name, but couldn’t verify it to Metro – said he started the group about a month ago and claims many participants try to help out their photography subjects by offering them money.
Members recently started “ranking” images based on how humiliating they are, he added, with bonus points for things like “being drunk on Listerine.”
To Richter, though, the page is no laughing matter.
He said the images remind him of a 2006 incident in which a group of young men filmed themselves assaulting a homeless man on a Calgary street, citing inspiration from the U.S. film series ‘Bumfights.’ (The incident was covered by CBS’ 60 Minutes at the time, which can be seen at the 9:25 mark in this online video of the archived broadcast.)
While the ‘Creature Sightings’ page features no violence, Richter said “it’s a slippery slope” toward something more serious.
“You begin with this degrading, idiotic crap where you start treating people than less human,” he said. “It’s not a stretch to make that other step.”
Cody Toebbicke, an early member of the page, said the tone has changed in recent weeks, as more people joined.
“I personally don’t really agree with a lot of what is posted on the page, or more to the point HOW it is posted by some,” he said via Facebook.
Toebbicke – who said he would have faced homelessness himself after suffering a serious spinal injury, if it weren’t for the support of people close to him – now uses the page to bring attention to a “Help the Homeless” effort he and others are trying to organize locally.
“I am bound and determined to effect change in our country, and to help as many as I can,” he said. “This was a good starting point.”
Calgary police, meanwhile, are keeping a close eye on the site.
“We are currently reviewing the website, however, on the surface there doesn’t appear to be anything illegal despite the disturbing content,” police spokesman Michael Nunn told Metro. “We work extremely closely with vulnerable members of our community and certainly do not condone such activity. We would urge anyone who feels harassed by this to contact police.”
‘Cash’ said he understands critics “to a point,” but he still plans to launch a standalone website within a month to expand the reach of “creature hunting.” He claims he will continue to try to help the people photographed with things like care packages, money, and gift cards.
“We are kind of using a shock/humour approach to also help raise awareness,” he added.
Richter said the activity clearly exploits vulnerable people and if police can’t stop it, it should either be shamed or ignored.
“I think decent, fair-minded Calgarians will see this and see it for the atrocious example of social-media abuse that it is,” he said. “It’s bullying, plain and simple.”