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Don’t Just Watch the News, Look at It

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Here’s a question: How do you, yourself—personally—feel about homeless people?

No kneejerk, politically correct responses allowed, let alone their dark flip-side, those politically IN-correct, personally inhumane one-liners uttered by a certain kind of guy seemingly in hope of eliciting a giggled “Oh, you’re awful” from a feminine companion.

Let’s get right past what you think is appropriate to say in any given social context, past even your opinion “in theory.” Just take a moment or two, and make a concerted effort to determine your very own visceral response toward homelessness and the people who experience it-your gut feeling.

What you’re likely to discover, if you’re truly honest with yourself, is that it’s no easy task to pinpoint a response you can genuinely claim as your own. And if this makes you wonder where you got some of your ideas about homelessness and attitudes toward homeless people, you need look no further than the daily newspaper and the nightly news.

Which is by no means the same as saying that you shouldn’t. Look further that is. In fact, quite the contrary. Please, please DO, look further—looking further is strongly encouraged. Check out online alternative news sources such as Media Alliance’s MediaFile. At the very least, try to get into the habit of picking up an San Francisco Bay Guardian each Wednesday. Because sad to say, virtually any of the many alternative sources that cover homelessness in San Francisco do so with far greater depth, credibility, and sensitivity than say, for example, the San Francisco Chronicle.

Poor People, Poor News Coverage

News coverage of homelessness falls into two basic categories: stories about people and stories about policies. Let’s look at the people side of the equation.

The following excerpts are drawn from a 2001 analysis of homelessness coverage by Media Alliance Board Member Ben Clarke:

Most of them are kind of cuckoo and not real clean.” From a Matier and Ross column in the San Francisco Chronicle (11/17/99) headlined “Influx of Homeless People Angers Youth Hostel Tenants,” this quote is emblematic of the tenor of reporting on the homeless by San Francisco’s dailies. The story follows the standard frame: Dirty, smelly homeless people are ruining the enjoyment of facility X (the hostel) by upstanding group Y (tourists). City department Z (the Office on Homelessness), while trying to do its best, is just too overwhelmed to make anyone happy. Middle- or working-class citizens are interviewed about the latest dilemma, and lo and behold, out from their mouths pop prejudice and stereotypes about homeless people. A reaction quote from advocates for the homeless rounds out the picture.

The mainstream media, instead of offering an integrated analysis of issues, usually gives us attacks on homeless people, such as a full-page photo spread revealing the duplicity of one spare-changer who does his panhandling from a wheelchair that he doesn’t absolutely need (Sunday Chronicle/Examiner 9/99). Or vicious opinion pieces like one by Debra Saunders, in which she informs us that on Market Street “Morning is the time for burn-outs and the mentally ill. You see them among their few dirty possessions, maybe a stuffed animal. They have to turn to toys to find something that looks up to them… If this city had a strong mayor, at the very least the police would displace these campers and force them to use their welfare checks for shelter. Or leave town.” (Chronicle, 10/16/99).

Meanwhile, city actions such as the police harassment campaign aimed at a Food Not Bombs crew serving soup and bagels at the Civic Center receive very little media play. When, in early October, police began arresting servers and confiscating the food, only a hunger strike by Sister Bernie Galvin of Religious Witness with Homeless People managed to move the story into the Chronicle and the Examiner in a couple of small articles (11/10/99).

“Special” Treatment

This is the point at which, if this were being presented in the form of a school lecture, the classroom would come to life, hands shooting skyward, arms waving wildly, as students across the room vied for the opportunity to complain that the course content is clearly outdated, coming as it does from the bad old days pre-Care Not Cash, before the advent of the Newsom Administration, with its avowed commitment to tackling homelessness in San Francisco with what amounts to the municipal version of “tough love.” Not just sadly out of date either, but also woefully out of touch, since today the Chronicle’s homeless coverage is largely perceived in terms of the paper’s award-winning 2004 series “Shame of the City,” a high-concept, high-production value weeklong extravaganza replete with diagrams, photo essays, and in-depth reportage that prominently featured a number of individual vignettes of life on the streets that “put a human face on homelessness in San Francisco.”

To which an appropriate response might be something along the lines of: “Yeah, OK. But I bet they had faces to begin with.” Because “Shame” or no, local mainstream media coverage of homelessness continues to be largely demeaning to and exploitive of homeless people, while providing excellent public relations to those in power and in funds.

“Shame” vs. “Sham”

The thing is, it goes far beyond the portrayal of individual homeless people. Yes, of course, an upbeat feature story like the one that graced the Chron’s front cover just last Saturday (5/21/05), “Reason to Smile”—a touching follow-up story of how “Life is good” now for a formerly homeless woman whose “Shame of the City” exposure brought renewed contact with family and a new, healthy life—is preferable to stories that portray homeless people as deceitful, or dirty, or drunken, or any of the all-too-many stereotypes that still abound.

Unfortunately, even the most positive portrayals of homeless people tend to preach, prejudge, or betray prejudice. Individuals are often characterized as personally “weak,” “lost,” or “helpless,” hapless pawns of fate because personally “flawed” (another term of art in describing those on the street). These stories generally follow a predictable arc: Individual with tragic personal flaw (usually mental illness, substance abuse, or a combination) loses job, home, friends, family (and faith), spiraling down into the degradation of an abuse-laden life of dying in the streets, only to be redeemed at the eleventh hour by the near-miraculous restoration of one or more of the lost elements to his or her life, exclusively through the intervention of compassionate people or policies.

On the surface, it’s a modern-day morality play. But if you dig down deeper, the implications are somewhat more ambiguous in their morality. Let’s see, there’s “innately flawed individual is saved by compassionate society” and “departure from societal norms spells disaster” just for starters. And I’m sure you can come up with a few more “morals” that would be anything but morale boosters to anyone facing the possibility of homelessness.

Writing Social Wrongs

“The mainstream media, instead of offering an integrated analysis of issues, usually gives us attacks on the homeless.”

Which brings us back to a point touched on earlier: the idea that mainstream media’s proper function is emphatically NOT that of societal cheerleader for socio-economic success (out there in the streets, visibly championing the champions). Nor should it serve on an individual basis as priest, confessor, judge, jury, or executioner of those less socio-economically successful.

What should it do? How about, as Clarke’s piece suggests, mainstream media shifting its focus from the personal to the social sphere? How about, in the case of homelessness, examining the root, systemic causes, rather than scapegoating (or rather, first scapegoating, then redeeming) the individuals? The fact is, many people slip into substance abuse and mental illness as a result of living on the streets, not the other way around. Add that to the likely outcome of current government policies putting thousands upon thousands of additional people, including immigrants, families, and a whole host of those classed as the “working poor” at risk of imminent homelessness. It’s going to get nothing but tougher and tougher to find fault with the individuals on the streets rather than with the system that put them there.

That’s the final concept: It’s in the best interests of all parties to make an effort right now to shift the focus away from easy-write, easy-sell isolated sagas that showcase the quick fix and the feel-good photo op to the big picture, root causes and real solutions. Just as the real story behind Project Homeless Connect is the sad fact that all the good intentions in the world can’t connect local homeless people with housing and services that at this point simply don’t exist , the real story behind the homeless crisis is that unless radical changes are made, homelessness will continue to grow and spread–and that it will remain a simple impossibility to build needed housing or provide vital services without appropriate funding allocations from EVERY level of government.

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Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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