Removing homeless from sight doesn’t make them go away

Since Gavin Newsom became San Francisco mayor, the City has spent $7.8 million issuing 46,000 citations for homelessness offenses. It has drastically reduced mental health and substance abuse services, blocked millions for homeless housing, and reduced General Assistance checks to less than $80. Now Newsom and the District Attorney’s office are promoting a new Community Justice Center, a full-scale court with judges, prosecutors, and public defenders, which they say would force those judged guilty of homelessness crimes into housing and treatment services.

But there is no way the City can supply these services. 54,000 households are already on a wait list for housing. Thousands are waiting for the meager array of mental health and substance abuse services that still exist after years of cuts. As Jennifer says, “No amount of punishment will lift people out of poverty.”

Gray Panthers adds that it’s an obscene lie to blame the homeless for not accessing housing and services, when it’s decades of City and Federal cuts that have caused these services to disappear.

SF Chronicle, December 7, 2007

Removing homeless from sight doesn’t make them go away

Paul Boden,Jennifer Friedenbach

The insatiable appetite to see homeless people disappear from our parks, streets, business districts and tourist areas requires us all to go back to one of the very first lessons we are taught as infants.  Just because you can no longer see it, doesn’t mean it no longer exists.  Think of this the next time you play peek-a-boo with a toddler.  Now you see the homeless.  Now you don’t.  But either way, we’re still here.  Peek-a-boo!! When city government talks about closing our parks at night and establishing expanded camping and cooking restrictions, and when Chronicle columnist C.W.  Nevius writes about the parks, we often hear the phrase, “This is not about homelessness.  It’s about the parks.” While this phrase is a great tagline, it is also blatantly untrue.

Park sweeps, police outreach teams and the busting up of encampments in China Basin and along the freeways has EVERYTHING to do with homelessness! Our parks, our freeway underpasses and our streets have been around a lot longer than the very recent advent of closing and fencing them off has.  In fact, a direct correlation can be made between the massive increases in homelessness in the early 1980s and the park closures, police programs with both old and new vagrancy laws, and the fencing off of open space.  Prior to Mayor Frank Jordan’s Matrix program, all of San Francisco’s public parks were open 24-hours-a-day.  Now, Golden Gate Park closes at 10 p.m.  and other parks at dusk or midnight.

Prior to the federal cuts to affordable housing programs – from $83 billion in 1978 to $18 billion in 1983 – contemporary homelessness did not exist.  Public parks were open for stargazing (and necking) and panhandling was around but not that big of a deal.  After the cuts in government funding for affordable housing, Disney moves into Times Square and Union Square, million-dollar lofts are built in what was once skid row, the public parks are all closed at night, and practically every store front has a “no trespassing” sign in its window.  For homeless people, the end result is almost everything other than walking and breathing can get you a ticket, which then lands you in jail.

We need to rediscover what we learned when we were infants: People still exist even if we don’t see them.  It’s called object permanence.  Maybe if we remembered this lesson, we would choose to do something about the increasing number of families and individuals living without housing in the United States and begin to fund housing programs again.  Maybe we could find a unified community voice for restoring the governor’s recent (in a long series of) mental health funding cuts instead of constantly reading about the potential dangers those scary crazy homeless people impose on the rest of us.

When local government is allowed to play peek-a-boo with people’s lives, when it is given the authority to make people disappear from society’s consciousness, the result is inevitable – incarceration.  After all, removing people’s presence from society pretty much requires you put them somewhere.  As the federal and state governments abandoned all pretense of responsibility for the health and housing needs of people who may be poor and/or disabled, local governments increasingly turned to laws and policing programs to mitigate the damage.

In response, jails are overflowing and municipal courts have established “special courts” along social, as opposed to criminal, lines to deal with this influx.  Drug courts, mental health courts and homeless or community courts are all, at their core, manifestations of a criminal justice system overwhelmed by a society that attempts rid itself of poor people rather than attempting to rid itself of poverty.

Just as sweeping dirt under the rug doesn’t really clean the floor, sweeping disabled and homeless people from public view or into jail doesn’t really address homelessness.  They are still disabled and homeless when they are released.  It is ineffective as hell, but local governments keep trying and we keep letting them.

It has been 25 years since the re-emergence of massive homelessness in America.  It is time we stop trying to recreate Jim Crow and start trying to recreate the New Deal.  After all, the New Deal didn’t build prisons.  It created jobs building Hospitals, Schools and Homes.

Paul Boden is the director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project and

Jennifer Friedenbach is the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco.

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While we’re talking about slandering and marginalizing the homeless, and the media’s role, we should look at BeyondChron’s October 30 piece

New Report Slams Chronicle’s Coverage of Development Issues

A new report by the Youth Media Council has found that during February, March and April 30, 2007, the San Francisco Chronicle ran four times as many stories about Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie than about African-Americans leaving San Francisco. The report also found that the Chronicle rarely featured stories on gentrification or displacement, and when development issues were discussed, corporate solutions took precedence over community strategies. While the study’s conclusions do not come as a surprise, its statistical analysis of Chronicle news stories shows that the paper’s promotion of corporate solutions to urban problems transcends the editorial page, and is more deeply rooted than many might suspect.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s pro-gentrification agenda is certainly not news. But in its newly issued report, Displacing the Dream, the Youth Media Council (YMC) shows that the paper’s framing of news stories is even worse, and more pernicious, than many realize.

During its three-month study, the YMC report found that Chronicle stories about problems in the housing market (foreclosures and the housing “bubble”) exceeded stories on displacement, homelessness and school closures by more than 3-1.

And what is particularly noteworthy about this finding is that according to the October 27 Chronicle, there have relatively few foreclosures in San Francisco while the vast majority of the region’s problems are in Contra Costa County.

In other words, the Chronicle has devoted far more coverage to a housing problem primarily outside its readership base than to those issues directly impacting its circulation area. And as Beyond Chron pointed out in September, tales of foreclosure victims vastly outnumber the far more common story of San Franciscans suffering hardship and displacement due to rising rents.

Of the 334 Chronicle stories about development or the housing market, less than 1% mentioned displacement connected to development as a problem. And in the 60% of stories when solutions to housing market or development problems were identified, Chronicle reporters overwhelming favored those that were corporate-controlled.

The YMC report makes clear that the Chronicle’s pro-gentrification, pro-downtown agenda goes far beyond the type of stories it chooses to cover. Even when a story does discuss the human impact of the region’s housing affordability crisis, the Chronicle tends to limit its scope to the individual facts rather than place the event in a broader context.

YMC found that 60% of Chronicle stories on housing market problems failed to identify any root causes. Statistics and trends are routinely ignored, so that readers would have no way of extrapolating from coverage of the particular individual’s problem that they are part of a larger and more systemic crisis.

For example, I have repeatedly reported on the Chronicle’s failure to blame federal budget cuts since 1981 for the city’s and nation’s homeless problem. The paper has written about the life stories of homeless individuals, discussed various local solutions, but almost entirely ignored the inadequate federal funding that is the root cause.

Although even strong proponents of development often acknowledge the potential impacts of gentrification and displacement, the Chronicle seems afraid to even mention the latter two problems. YMC found that while the word “development” appeared 424 times in the three-month period studied, the words “displacement” and “gentrification” were mentioned only 14 and 11 times respectively.

Also virtually absent were stories addressing race. In the less than 15% of stories where race is even mentioned, only 6% connected race to displacement. Although San Francisco’s political leadership has openly bemoaned the steady exodus of African-Americans from the city, this trend is isolated from decisions related to development.

As Ingrid Gonzales of Coleman Advocates for Youth states, the Chronicle fails to “report on families struggling to stay” in the Bay Area. If you want to know “what does it mean to live with an in-law, what does it mean to live as a family of five in a studio, or as five-families in a two-bedroom house,” you will not find out in the Chronicle.

The Chronicle also fails to provide a neighborhood context for its land use stories. YMC
found that 63% of stories addressing housing, development or gentrification “failed to mention a specific Bay Area neighborhood.” Bayview-Hunters Point was the community most mentioned, while other areas facing gentrification pressures—such as West Oakland, SOMA and the Mission—were rarely or never mentioned.

This lack of neighborhood focus reflects an inexplicable marketing decision in addition to the paper’s pro-gentrification agenda. The Internet has led many newspapers to beef up their neighborhood coverage, as neighborhood news is not available on the national on-line news sources that have hurt daily newspaper circulation.

When the Hearst Corporation ran the Examiner, it saw neighborhood coverage as a good way to get people to buy papers; now it ignores such stories, and favors lengthy features on decades-old murder cases and other topics that further the paper’s circulation decline.

YMC’s report offers ten suggestions to improve Chronicle coverage of housing and development issues, many of which focus on the need for greater input from community representatives in covering stories. But if my own experience is typical, many current Chronicle reporters lack the community connections of their predecessors, the latter of whom worked for years on the same beat.

For example, in 2004 and 2005, Kevin Fagan was the Chronicle’s chief reporter on homelessness. Fagan was a more knowledgeable reporter when he left the beat for a Stanford fellowship than he was when he began, and one would think that he would bring this expertise with him when he returned to the paper this year.

But rather than have a reporter with community contacts and a deep knowledge base cover one of San Francisco’s most pressing stories, the Chronicle has assigned Fagan to cover local fires. This is the type of assignment traditionally given to new reporters, and means that the Chronicle reporter with the most background in homelessness is not writing about it.

Instead, former sportswriter and East Bay columnist Chuck Nevius has become the Chronicle’s lead reporter on homelessness. And while Nevius has admitted his lack of background in the field, this has not prevented him from writing pieces that completely misstate the history of San Francisco’s homeless problem.

Unlike Fagan, Nevius did not check with community people before writing his stories, because he had no relationship with them. Even a Chronicle reporter that wants community input on stories may not know who to talk to, and this problem only gets worse as veteran journalists accept buyouts to leave and the space for news stories shrinks (consider how the Sunday Chronicle’s Bay Area section is now primarily comprised not of news stories, but of obituaries).

The Youth Media Council story will soon be available on line, and we will link to it when that occurs.

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