The Uncomfortable Truth About Benny Barret

On June 20, Leslie Minora published a story on Unfair Park about a guy, Benny Barret, who was purportedly choosing to live as a homeless person so that he could better document the lives of the homeless. It was titled “Benny Barret Is Homeless(ish).” Minora was taken missed a big part of the story. Our own Claire St. Amant, assistant managing editor of People Newspapers, explains:

The True Tale of Benny B
By Claire St. Amant

When the Dallas Observer interviewed Benny Barret (note the one t) and dubbed him “homeless(ish),” I read the piece with interest. This wasn’t the first time I’d come across Benny, though it was the first time I noticed him spelling his name that way.

I once worked as an editor at Baylor’s student paper, The Lariat. During my time there, a couple reporters were sniffing around the Benny-Barrett-is-homeless shtick. Even with a whopping two semesters as a paid journalist under my belt, I called B.S. Of course, back then Benny didn’t have his story so fine tuned. He was actually trying to pass himself off as homeless, secretly living in a study carrel in the library.

A few conversations with the office of financial aid, the dean of student life, and professors in the honors college proved the story was far from accurate. Despite the eagerness with which the reporters had written the tale of Benny B, we killed the story. A couple of weeks later, in May 2008, we all graduated. And I thought that would be the last I’d hear of anyone posing as homeless for attention. Enter the Observer article.

Now, to Benny’s credit, the story of his using homelessness for a social experiment of sorts has a lot more traction. He’s had four years to find a hook that works on the media, and he finally caught a big fish named Leslie Minora. Smooth talking Benny-with-one-t reeled in Minora while wearing a Baylor Classics Department T-shirt and carrying an iPhone. Nice work.

I’m not arguing that Benny isn’t obsessed with homelessness. He clearly is. But there’s a pretty big difference between a healthy obsession and what Benny’s doing. Instead of helping the down-and-out with job training or a hot meal, Benny is reveling in their poverty. He’s using those who have nothing to get his 15 minutes of fame.

Of course, Benny is no stranger to the spotlight. In addition to duping the 2009 staff at The Lariat into running a profile of him that is eerily similar to the one we shot down the year before, Benny has had at least one run-in with the law. In July 2011, Waco Police were called to Benny’s house because he was running around the street naked. By the time officers arrived, he’d climbed a tree. Benny admitted to being under the influence of alcohol and Ambien, but his roommates told police they suspected he was on something else. I’d tell you more, but the report has been redacted.

To be honest, I’m glad to have an excuse to stop talking about Benny. I didn’t want to write about him four years ago, and I wish I didn’t have to write about him now. The true tale of Benny B is far sadder and more disturbing than the homeless(ish) version.

15 comments on “The Uncomfortable Truth About Benny Barret

  1. seems the commenters knew he was a fake from comment one on. If you have a home to go to, you aren’t homeless

  2. An email discussion with Joe Tone, the Observer’s editor, convinced me that I found the wrong words when I said Minora “was taken.” Hence the strike-through.

  3. she wasnt taken? What do you call it then, or what were her motives for giving the guy print then?

  4. As someone who is a (former?) friend of Benny’s, and who has watched his descent into madness (literally) with alarm, I commend Claire St. Amant for her reporting. I know for a fact that the police were called when Benny went crazy in public on at least one more occasion, and this had everything to do with him losing his job at Reicher. It’s a complete fabrication that he quit to try to be George Orwell, living among the down and out and doing “investigative journalism.”

    Maybe Claire’s article will be the thing that forces Benny to get the help he needs. Everybody feeding his self-deception is only making it worse.

  5. I’ve got to agree with SybilisBeaver here. Minora was taken, there’s no kinder way to put it. It happens to all of us sooner or later. Find me a journalist who has never been taken and I’ll buy them lunch at The Mansion.
    Benny may have problems, but I have a kind of grudging admiration for somebody who can pull off a caper like this. It has its usefulness — bet Minora will run her checks a lot more carefully next time. And as long as it’s not about weapons of mass destruction in some third-world country, such hoaxes are relatively harmless, and even a little amusing.

  6. I didn’t actually work to convince Tim that we weren’t taken; I just asked him to spell out how we were, because this story doesn’t really do it and because I wanted to correct our story if it needed correcting.

    Our story was this: Benny, who is not homeless but is interested in homelessness, is living on the streets and chronicling street life with his iPhone.

    The real story, if I’m understanding it, is: Benny, who is not homeless but is obsessed with homelessness, is living on the streets and chronicling street life with his iPhone. Also, Benny is a little nuts.

  7. As someone who went both to high school and college with Benny, I must say, I think he’s really lost it. I’ve seen snippets of his activities on the internet, and I’m dismayed. He really seems to be off his rocker. While I think he is well intentioned, the descent into madness is clear, and I commend the author for calling attention to it. I hope he is able to get the help he needs.

  8. I’m curious as to whether Minora had anything more than Benny’s word for it that he’s actually “living” on the streets at all, or just spend a night or two outside in his “what if” fantasy.

  9. Joe Tone writes, Our story was this: Benny, who is not homeless but is interested in homelessness, is living on the streets and chronicling street life with his iPhone.

    The part that I object to was this (from the Observer story):

    “My job was killing me,” Barret says, sitting at a table in Main Street Garden Park on a recent afternoon. Barret is 28, but with rectangular glasses framing a boyish face, he could pass for one of his old students. He pushes aside a book to tell his odd story.

    He felt overwhelmed and disinterested at his job, he says, designing curriculum, teaching and grading and feeling all the while rather do something else. Half of his salary went to his student loans from studying at Baylor University, where he majored in Great Texts, “books written by dead white dudes,” he says. He could hardly keep himself afloat. So he quit and moved back to Dallas, his hometown.

    This is not true. Benny did not quit his job, or at least didn’t quit his job under the circumstances y’all reported. He and his former employer separated after he had another freakout and run-in with police. It’s hard to believe the reporter didn’t even at least call Benny’s old employer to confirm his story, especially since Benny quit during the school year, which is abnormal. The school probably wouldn’t have said anything, but the lack of a response would have told the reporter that something might be amiss with Benny’s story.

    I can’t read your reporter’s mind, but I bet she liked what she heard from the very charming Benny, and that it confirmed what she wanted to believe about this Peter Pan sprite who cast aside his education in Dead White Dude-ology to experience life on the streets.

    In other words, she got taken. And so did you, Joe Tone.

  10. @Joe Tone, The story is that for four years, Benny has been pitching and refining a tale of homelessness to the media. He’s not in it for the poor, but for the attention. And now you (and me) are finally giving it to him.

  11. Crazy is relative. Clearly, people who know him want him to get help. But are journalists obligated to tell readers every time they think someone they interview should possibly be committed? (If you answer yes, show your work.) And most people who talk to reporters all day don’t hate the attention. Am I missing something? Was Leslie soliciting donations for this guy? People are upset because it FEELS like she liked him? How much background should reporters do for a blog post about a guy downtown?

  12. A whole lot more than she did, Mike. More on the order of what you usually do.
    But agree with you about craziness and the slippery definition thereof. Reading the story of Benny I kept thinking of Andy Kaufman and Jonathan Winters and Hunter S. Thompson, all of whom seemed in need of “help” — unlike the rest of us, who just make decisions on who needs help.
    The more I hear the tongue-clucking crowd who want Benny committed, the more i like Benny. I hope he gets better at his act and I hope Minora isn’t the last reporter he takes in.

  13. Bill Marvel, if you knew Benny before he went nuts, and if you knew how much his situation these days grieved his friends and family, you wouldn’t think this is a funny Andy Kaufman story. The man is mentally ill. He’s not just punking reporters. He’s putting himself in serious danger. Besides that, Benny walked out, whether he meant to or not, on a whole class of students at Reicher. If he’s mentally ill (and he is), then he has an excuse, because he’s crazy. You should pity him. But if he’s doing an Andy Kaufman, then you should be angry at him, because he’s making a lot of people pay a price so he can put himself at the center of attention.

    If you were in Waco and knew the full story from the people who tried to help him at Baylor but finally got sick and tired of being head-faked by Benny, you would see things differently. These are going to be the people who will pick up the pieces when he finally crashes, if he hasn’t gone missing. Well, his family will be the main ones. Did the reporter try to interview his mom and dad to see what they thought of their son’s little experiment? Maybe they wouldn’t have talked to her, but they could at least have told her that there was a lot more to this than Benny was letting on, and not to be taken in.

  14. If it is an act, it is dumb and trite. His extremely high tension job of teaching Latin “was killing him” so why not just shrug off all forms of responsibility and go be “creative” on the streets of Dallas while really just mooching off his parents. Don’t care if the original author was “taken” or lazy in reporting; do care that dummies like this get any attention at all.