DENVER - A dirty, disheveled Keith Peeler had been living on the streets for nearly a year when a crew of 20-somethings with cameras jumped out of a van and headed straight for him. Some of Peeler's homeless buddies wanted to run.
But the young people had an offer: $10 a day, plus close to minimum wage, to appear on what they were calling "Homeless Real World," an Internet spoof of MTV's reality show.
Peeler and his pals took the cash. Over several weeks, the producers of the show had the cast members compete to build the best cardboard house, sent them grocery shopping in a well-to-do Denver neighborhood (the homeless got dirty looks), and paid for them to golf on a public course (they got kicked off).
The idea has angered some advocates for the homeless, who said the series - which has yet to be aired on the Web - exploited the homeless people and mocked them cruelly.
Yet the story had a happy ending of sorts: Four of the six cast members, including Peeler, have gotten off the streets with help from the producers.
After shooting was completed last spring, ManiaTV's filmmakers drove several cast members to detox centers, some more than once, and drove another to job interviews.
"It was time to come in from the cold," Peeler, 53, said recently. He and fellow cast member Johnny "Sgt. Stutters" Kibodeaux, 51, have been sober for almost nine months and are living at rehab centers, where they are working as kitchen managers.
Producer Darwyn Metzger said the filmmakers became attached to the homeless.
"Once you make that personal connection with them, you feel you have to go above and beyond," Metzger said. "I think we were all inspired by the fact they were very honest and had good hearts."
ManiaTV is pressing ahead with plans to run the show on the Internet sometime this year, with at least 10 episodes.
Founded in Denver, Los Angeles-based ManiaTV is an online entertainment business producing antics that have included a live, unscripted show with prankster-comedian Tom Green and dancers in fishnet stockings.
One early trailer for "Homeless Real World" featured homeless people using an advertiser's deodorant and surrounded by beautiful young models.
"The homeless were exploited and used in order to create a sensationalized situation," said Greta Walker, Denver Rescue Mission spokeswoman. "This is a horrible attempt to tell the story of the homeless population in metro Denver."
ManiaTV staff members said the show started out as a comic twist on "The Real World," but that changed. On its website, ManiaTV says: "Instead of following the normal reality formula of exploitation in the name of entertainment, we decided to help these folks along the way. The result is an exposé that will make you laugh, cry and, hopefully, think."
During the filming, the cast members got cleaned up and received haircuts. In some of the footage, a drunk and nearly incomprehensible Kibodeaux is shown with his pants stained from having wet himself. But the series also shows him checking into rehab. "I knew it was time. I was tired. There's better things to do than drink vodka and get high every day," Kibodeaux said in an interview at the rehab center.
As for some of the other cast members, ManiaTV's producers helped two more get into rehab, then put one of them on a bus to his family in Alabama, where he is now a truck driver, Metzger said. The other one moved in with a girlfriend and holds down a job at a rehab center, according to Peeler.
Peeler and Kibodeaux have seen only a trailer for "Homeless Real World" and have mixed feelings about watching full episodes.
"I'm not proud of the fact I was drunk on the streets," Peeler said. "It's not who I really think I am, but I don't want to forget that's where I come from. I always have the option of going back there. I have to always be aware of that."