The Bay Area saw the killings of two homeless people in the first week of September. On September 4, a police officer in San Mateo shot and killed a 49-year-old homeless man who, according to the local press, assaulted the officer with a knife. Four days later, the body of another man was discovered in the Shakespeare Garden in Golden Gate Park; SFPD will not release cause of death, but San Francisco media indicate that he was either beaten or stabbed, apparently in his sleep.
Coverage of the two events differed greatly in the San Francisco Chronicle: The officer shooting was covered by Henry K. Lee in a well-written story on September 5, the day after the event, and then briefly reviewed in a second story by John Cote one day later. Sources of information are clear, and, while it seems that the officers options were limited (the victim, “armed with a pocket knife”, could not be stopped by a Taser), Lee presents more than one view of the situation, quoting a local restaurant manager: “They overreacted. They could have controlled him[.]”
The first mention of the Golden Gate Park murder in the Chronicle came in a September 9 article, in which it was an “apparent homicide.”
On the 11th, the Chronicle ran a story on the victim by staff writer Jaxon Van Derbeken. Van Derbeken presents us with the sad story of a man who struggled with the disease of alcoholism, and had only recently become homeless. But the story is misleading in one regard. Quoting the victim’s estranged wife: “Alcohol was his undoing.”
Alcohol can cause acute respiratory failure. It can cause cirrhosis of the liver, which is, on occasion, fatal. It cannot directly cause blunt trauma to the head, or blood loss through the puncturing of internal organs. When a sleeping man is kicked or stabbed to death, that’s murder—not alcoholism.
Van Derbeken’s story, for the most part, focuses on humanizing the victim of this attack: We learn about his employment history, his interests, his personal relationships. The failure of this story is the focus on the perceived failings of the victim, while the act of assault itself is obscured, and the investigation skimmed over.
In all this, the question is what gets covered, and how: The San Mateo shooting, though covered very well by Lee, cannot help but lend support to the popular stereotype (certainly not Lee’s creation), that homeless people are mentally unstable and dangerous. While a good news story in itself, it fills a received role in popular culture.
The murder of the unfortunate gentleman in Golden Gate Park received light coverage (compared, for example, to next-day front-page stories on two high-profile stabbing murders last year) despite its brutality, because this sort of death is not seen as unusual for homeless people—it’s perceived as a sad fact of life on the streets. This is highlighted by the fact that factors in the individual cause of homelessness are given far more attention (three and a half paragraphs) than the cause of death (half a sentence)—as though we viewed homelessness itself as the cause of death.
I don’t mean to criticize Van Derbeken (who, according to Chronicle staff, chose to cover this story, one his paper would have allowed him to ignore), and perhaps even the Chronicle’s editorial staff—though they failed to run a story on the investigation, to cover the possibility of a hate crime, or to call its readership’s attention to the fact that a violent murder in Golden Gate Park had not yet been solved and that the murderer had neither been identified nor, in all likelihood, captured—are not fully to blame; ultimately, the problem is cultural. Too often, as readers, writers, and citizens, we who are with homes accept that homeless people have somehow earned what they experience, that they have made the beds in which they do not sleep.
The names of the victims have been ommitted in this story out of respect for the deceased and their families to determine how their stories are told.