“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 the homeless. A reaction quote from advocates for the homeless rounds out the picture.
Both the Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner consistently choose or frame stories in a way that engenders hostility toward the homeless from working- and middle-class San Franciscans. The papers’ coverage of the closure of the Mission Rock shelter is typical. The city administration had one and a half year’s notice that the 500- to 600-bed shelter would be torn down to make room for a parking lot for Pacific Bell ballpark, yet had no plan to replace it or shelter people in other locations. Imagine any other situation in which 500 people were threatened with dislocation and city officials bore the blame for bad administration. The focus of the stories would naturally be on what went wrong: Why wasn’t there a plan for relocating people? What’s happening to the individuals who have lost their places? What are independent nonprofit organizations doing to help the displaced? What sort of reforms will be needed to avoid such a crisis in the future?
In this case, however, the papers asked none of these questions. Instead, they devoted their coverage to the city’s half-hearted attempt to locate a shelter near Potrero Hill. The Chronicle‘s “Homeless Shelter Plan Attacked, Potrero Hill Neighbors Worry About Property Values” (8/6/99) and the Examiner‘s “Showdown Over Shelter, A Gritty Little Neighborhood Fights S.F. Plan for Homeless” (8/12/99) both focused on the “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) reactions from neighbors:
“‘Basically, it’s going to trash the neighborhood,’ said Tennessee Street resident Mark Gordon” (Chronicle, 8/6/99).
“‘The shelter’s not a prison,’ said Susan Eslick, another Tennessee Street resident. ‘They can’t keep them inside. They’ll want to walk around, go to the park, maybe panhandle to get some extra money.’. . . Eslick and her neighbors cringe when they think what may be in store for them” (Examiner, 8/12/99).
The horrifying idea that the neighbors would be better off if the homeless were sheltered in a prison is left unchallenged in the story, though such commentary about any other minority group would never be included without some countervailing opinion. And while the reporter had time to interview another disgruntled neighbor near the Mission Rock shelter, not a single shelter resident was interviewed. Only after the story had been framed as middle- and working-class citizens versus the homeless did the Examiner cover the dilemma faced by the Mission Rock shelter residents. Even the Examiner‘s best effort (8/18/99), in which two homeless people were interviewed, carried a headline (“Homeless Shelter Shutting to Make Way for Giants Fans”) that implicitly pitted presumably middle-class baseball fans against homeless people. The Chronicle‘s best story on the issue (9/11/99) did cover the role nonprofits are playing in responding to the crisis but interviewed not a single shelter resident, and, of course, left the deeper causes of the problem out of the picture.
Photo ©1999 Joan Rose (ROV class)
Government officials are portrayed in the papers as well-intentioned but somewhat bumbling in their sincere efforts to deal with this intractable problem. Meanwhile, city policies that aggravate rather than improve the housing shortage are left unexamined. This kind of story structure–homeless ruin X for group Y, city department Z fails to solve problem due to middle-class resistance–absolves the economic system and the wealthy and powerful of any responsibility. But the fact is, the city doesn’t have a coordinated housing policy, and its various agencies often make decisions that reduce housing–particularly affordable housing–or undermine rather than support the efforts of agencies assigned to address homelessness. Mayor Brown has publicly announced that there is no solution to homelessness and has apparently abandoned the idea of even formulating a citywide policy. At the same time, his administration has thrown as many subsidies as possible toward big business. San Francisco’s Redevelopment Authority feeds the speculative real estate frenzy, pouring huge sums of public money into shopping malls, hotels, convention centers, and business parks, while the Housing Authority continues to demolish public housing, with replacement affordable housing taking years to complete and serving far fewer people.
The integral connection between lack of affordable housing and homelessness is so rarely made that one has to wonder at the willful blindness involved. On September 21, 1999, the Chronicle released the results of an election poll that found that the top two issues of concern to voters were homelessness and housing. But even here, the story failed to address the obvious link between the two.
Lisa Gray Garcia, coeditor of Poor magazine and organizer of the website Poor Network News (www.poormagazine.com), believes that the “disconnect between the issues is an intentional policy,” and that the only way low-income people can break this mold is to create their own media and use the expertise of their own voices as journalists.
The mainstream media, instead of offering an integrated analysis of issues, usually gives us attacks on the homeless, 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 for the Homeless managed to move the story into the Chronicle and the Examiner in a couple of small articles (11/10/99).
In the Examiner, there are small glimmers of news stories (usually buried deep in the paper) with a more reasonable story frame, even if they are short on analysis. A profile of the Coalition on Homelessness’s first art auction in a column by Stephanie Salter (9/12/99), and news features on the National Coalition for the Homeless meeting in San Francisco (10/3/99) and a Homeless People’s Congress (10/28/99)–both sponsored by the Coalition on Homelessness–provide a sense that the homeless themselves do have an agenda for change.
Paul Boden, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, attributes most of the organization’s media success to its sheer endurance. After ten years of fighting for the rights of the poor, “you tend to end up in reporters’ Rolodexes,” he told Media Alliance’s Raising Our Voices street journalism class. But while the Coalition is asked frequently for its response to the latest action by the city government, Boden finds that most of the stories follow a predictable pattern: “If you fit their agenda and provide them a negative reaction quote, they use it. Otherwise, they ignore what you say.” And there’s no follow-up on homeless stories, he observes, adding that the writing is at such a simplified level, he wonders if the reporters “even read their own prior stories.” He also notes that the turnover in reporters on the City Hall beat seems calculated to make political coverage shallow so that people think it’s all a personality contest between the egos of mostly men. It was frustration with this shallowness that led the Coalition to start San Francisco’s Street Sheet newspaper, he says. (See “Dissenting Papers of the Street,” MediaFile, 5/99.)
Terry Messman, editor of the East Bay’s street paper, Street Spirit, says that “when it comes to homelessness, the Chronicle is the most appallingly inhumane of any big-city newspaper I know of.” In Messman’s view, the paper’s news reporting “constantly and uncritically amplifies the complaints against street people by merchants and acts more like an arm of the Chamber of Commerce than a newspaper.” Messman believes that the paper has contributed directly to the criminalization of poverty through editorials which “championed every Draconian piece of antihomeless legislation pushed through under [former Mayor Frank] Jordan and Brown.” And while he sees the Examiner as slightly better in day-to-day coverage, “that’s all out the window when they put one story on the front page calling General Assistance recipients deadbeats.”
Shopping Cart War
In both the Chronicle and the Examiner, for a few days in mid October 1999, the frame of the story was changed: This time it was ill-intentioned city department Z is attempting to inflict a vengeful, punitive homeless policy. Community group Y is protesting the attack on the homeless and reaction quotes from politician X show that it’s a hopeless idea. The topic was the city’s plan to confiscate shopping carts, and with a powerful combination of street knowledge, public records requests, and media savvy, the Coalition on Homelessness’s exposé of Brown’s shopping cart confiscation program made front-page news for three days. Brown was caught on the same hook that had impaled Jordan before him and flip-flopped on the dock like a slippery eel out of water.
In the days leading up to the attempted crackdown, members of the Coalition brought in copies of an anonymously produced flyer warning of an impending cart seizure. According to Chance Martin, editor of the Street Sheet and a member of MA’s Raising Our Voices, the coalition called the contact number on the flyer at the mayor’s Office on Homelessness. Director George Smith denied that his office had released it. Smelling something fishy, the Coalition staff filed a number of public records requests to find out which city officials were behind the plan. They hit pay dirt with two memos from police chief Fred Lau detailing the specifics of the crackdown. Coalition members Martin, Mara Raider, and Judy Appel hit the fax machines and email lists and blasted a bulleted summary of their findings to activist groups and reporters all over town.
The Chronicle‘s Matier and Ross column on the mayor’s political misstep ran on page one. The Examiner also picked up the story. While Brown oscillated between denying and acknowledging his support for the plan, the papers actually went out and interviewed homeless people. The Chronicle‘s October 9 story led with quotes from the street: “‘The cops have already hassled us for years, and they took three of my carts this month, but nothing can stop people from using them. Think this latest thing will make any difference? It’s just politics,’ said Karen Burris, a homeless woman.”
Ample ink was still given to the patently ridiculous official position: “‘We are going to do this compassionately,’ said police spokesman Sherman Ackerson. ‘Our No. 1 priority is not to arrest anybody, criminalize anybody. The primary thing is to get the carts back.'” And the beleaguered middle class was given the last word–the story closes with a sad portrait of the UN Cafe owner, who has a running battle with homeless people who relieve themselves outside of his shop.
On October 11, the Examiner also ran an entire story of interviews with homeless people, and, amazingly enough, they were portrayed as clean, responsible souls who were trying to create shelter for themselves, and whose recycling work was actually a contribution to the community.
Nonetheless, Boden points out that if a homeless person is interviewed by the mainstream media, nine times out of ten the story will be “about the problems faced by that individual, not about what’s going on around that person, not on their opinion of the system.” He observes that “typically each person’s experience is portrayed as unique,” and that this portrayal fits the view that “homelessness is an individual condition that can solved by rehabilitating the suffering individual.”
The Coalition’s media push continued with the placement of a joint op-ed in the Chronicle (10/20/99) by Street Sheet‘s Martin and Street Spirit‘s Messman challenging the popular indignation over the shopping cart fiasco to go farther. Given the hundreds who die on the street every year and the thousands being criminalized for meeting their survival needs, they called for a progressive program of “affordable housing, living-wage jobs, decent health care, mental health services, and substance-use treatment for all who need them.” The two urged the community to “compel candidates for every elected office in America to demonstrate their will to make these simple, proven solutions to homelessness and poverty a reality.”
And apparently that call was not entirely unrealistic. Two weeks later, Tom Ammiano, the only San Francisco supervisor to take a consistent position in support of the progressive agenda, was swept into the runoff by a write-in candidacy that the establishment never saw coming.
In no small part it was the concern about skyrocketing housing costs that provided the bedrock for Ammiano’s grassroots insurgency. At the time of the Chronicle poll on September 21, no candidate was seen as the leader on housing and homelessness. And while the Chronicle apparently could see no relationship between the two issues, the electorate wasn’t quite so blind.
At an election debate with Ammiano November 17, Brown revealed that he was actually implementing the shopping cart confiscations, quietly and on a small scale. The media spotlight had moved off the issue, and, according to word on the streets, the trash compactor teams were roving the Mission grabbing people’s possessions and carts and smashing them flat. (This despite the fact that the ostensible reason for the program is to return the carts to the grocery stores from which they came.)
End Poverty in California
Sixty-five years ago this November, Upton Sinclair, author of the meat packing industry exposé The Jungle, ran for governor of California as the spokesperson for the movement to End Poverty in California (EPIC). Reflecting on what it would take to build a movement to change the economic system that was causing poverty for millions, he said, “A man’s attitude toward this situation depends upon one factor. If he believes that private industry is ‘coming back,’ he is willing to wait and endure and patch things up. . . . If he makes up his mind that it is not coming back, then his whole attitude changes and he is ready to consider some new procedure, thoroughgoing and drastic.”
Sinclair’s words hold true today. When the homeless crisis first exploded in the 1980s, we might have thought it was temporary. In fact, thanks to systematic policy decisions at the local, national, and even international level, we now have a permanent underclass whose conditions grow worse regardless of official unemployment statistics and ever multiplying shopping malls. Private industry and multinational capital aren’t “coming back” for the homeless, and it’s time to consider “new procedures, thoroughgoing, and drastic.”
Sinclair was defeated in his run for governor by the very first negative media campaign in the United States, and Ammiano has suffered the same fate. Even if he had been elected, he would have been hemmed in by a system that only changes when faced with consistent grassroots mobilizations.
Street Spirit‘s Messman suggests that “when the major media so bitterly scapegoat and vilify homeless people, the most important thing we can do is lift up and amplify the voices of the poor, which are now being suppressed.” He advises activists to challenge “distorted reporting and editorial bias by writing their own headlines through nonviolent direct action that puts our bodies on the line.”
Events at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle demonstrate the power of an alternative information strategy and activist campaign. People went to Seattle based on information not from the mainstream, but from the alternative media. If we are to break the media blockade and political inaction in San Francisco around homelessness, we need to build similar mobilizations. One possible direction offered by Messman: “We should consider taking the struggle directly to the Chronicle‘s editorial offices and protest their failure to fairly cover life-and-death issues affecting the homeless community.”
Ben Clarke is director of editing and design at Media Alliance. He has been facilitating workshops with homeless writers and artists since 1989.